Democratic Socialism in America
An Enlightened Orphan without a Viable Political Future
Like my three sons I consider myself a democratic socialist although my perceptions of current affairs could hardly be more different than theirs. Kind of proves we’re fathers and grownup sons. “Times are different Dad, you just don’t understand, and anyway, we’ve researched it on the Internet”.
I oppose most GOP policies and thus I oppose the Trump administration, as do they, although I supported candidate Trump’s desire to avoid foreign intervention and to attain rapprochement with Russia, China, etc. They, on the other hand, seem very much on board with the Democratic Party’s current obstructionist policies and the “Russiagate” allegations. Still, we manage to love and more importantly tolerate and respect each other and our opinions (or at least I believe that we do), something sorely lacking in our almost totally polarized society.
So, democratic socialists.
What is that anyway? Sounds like a pinko conspiracy of some kind, one that wants to take our property and give it away to illegal immigrants. Damn!!!
Well, … not so much; … not really; … not at all.
Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that rejects both neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy, the twin pillars of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. While many, many Americans embrace that philosophy, most do so instinctively rather than affirmatively, too many being too terrified to acknowledge it because of their phobia with respect to the term “socialism”, a phobia cultivated by neoliberalism and its predecessors over the past century and a half. But socialism is merely the recognition that society is a collective concept with carve outs for individual rights when they do not subvert the quest for the common welfare. Socialism involves much more than mere property rights although that theme has been used very effectively against it, albeit all too frequently, erroneously.
Popular concepts of socialism in the United States associate it with authoritarian or totalitarian governance in combination with the absence of all property rights, believing that all property is owned by an all-powerful state which allocates it as it sees fit, usually in a corrupt fashion. The concept of socialism has in fact been abused by some who claim to act in its name and who have promoted authoritarian and even totalitarian forms of governance, the prime examples being the conglomerate of Communist Party led states that rose and fell during the twentieth century, but socialist governments can be as diverse as the United Kingdom and the Nordic states, the Peoples Republics of China, Cuba and Vietnam, and to some extent, the welfare state established in the United States by FDR’s New Deal.
Democratic socialism is different than traditional forms of socialism in that it involves a synthesis of socialist collective goals with an absolute rejection of authoritarian government and militarist — interventionist foreign policy and a profound respect for human rights: civic and political but also social, cultural, economic and environmental (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_socialism). There is recognition of the right to private property but only to the extent that it does not unreasonably jeopardize the common welfare. The best example of a democratic socialist government in the world today is probably the Republic of Iceland. Nordic countries also demonstrate aspects of democratic socialism but have been subverted by neoconservative foreign policy sympathies, especially with regard to NATO. Leading democratic socialists around the world might surprise you. They tend to include people such as George Orwell (of 1984 fame), Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell and many, many more (see, e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_socialism#Intellectuals_and_activists).
The recent attempt within the Democratic Party to generate a democratic socialist movement in the United States was doomed to failure for two major reasons. Because it originated in today’s Clinton — Obama led Democratic Party which has in large part abandoned its liberal social roots in favor of neoliberalism, with the massive influx of campaign contributions that such repositioning brought about, but also because of the movement’s focus on a deeply flawed leader, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders has long evoked important aspects of democratic socialism, mainly with respect to economic matters, but in foreign affairs he has too many neoconservative leanings largely inspired by his devotion to Israel (which requires both an interventionist mentality and the ability to ignore or minimize major violations of human rights). Amazingly (in a distressing sense), when push came to shove during the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential primaries, he sold out to the Clinton — Obama branch of the party notwithstanding the clearly illegal manner in which its primaries had been subverted. Thus, as pointed out in the article posted on Jun 15, 2017 by Glen Ford (see Black Agenda Report (http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/would_bernie_sanders-led_party_still_be_imperialist_pro-war_party_20170615), Senator Sanders is clearly not the man to lead a democratic socialist movement; anywhere. Dennis Kucinich might seem like an ideal leadership candidate but notwithstanding his intellect and integrity he has never really caught on. Like Sanders, Jill Stein, another potential leadership candidate, eventually sold out to the Clintons, something unlikely to be forgotten. The long time natural leader for democratic socialism in America has probably been Noam Chomsky but he has neither the inclination nor the aspiration to lead any political movements, preferring instead to lay an academic and civic base for their evolution. If there is a compelling potential democratic socialist leader today with a realistic chance to spark such movement I have yet to meet him or her and the reality is that Bernie Sanders diverted so much wind from the sails of democratic socialism in America that recovery may prove very, very difficult. I guess that’s bad news with a silver lining, at least so long as there is someone, somewhere, with the ambition and talent to assume that role. Resumes will be gratefully accepted.
So, why the dearth of successful leadership among democratic socialists? Well, the factors are varied and as in most cases, money is at the root.
Successful political leadership requires a combination of complementary traits that are very difficult to find in any political context: the charisma and the organizational and fundraising skills necessary to succeed electorally; the discipline, knowledge and organizational and leadership abilities necessary to govern successfully; and, the integrity to avoid the pitfalls that inevitably seem to lead to corruption. In the United States today, where elections must be purchased from the mainstream media, it is almost impossible to reconcile the first and last aspects of the foregoing. The funds required to purchase elections are generally available primarily from corporate cabals, a predictable consequence of neoliberal economics very heavily reinforced by the United States Supreme Court in its infamous Citizens United case (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 558 U.S. 310 ), and of course, the vast bulk of such funds are almost immediately paid over to the mainstream media which has no incentive to cut off that income flow. Thus the purchase of elections remains, at least for the foreseeable future, the only viable route to political power.
Given the reality that elections must now be purchased from the mainstream media, what possibilities exist to finance such purchase from non-traditional sources in a manner making democratic socialism a viable political alternative? Three come to mind.
One possibility (ironically) might involve a self-financed candidacy by an independently wealthy political leader whose rise to economic and political power, tainted as it would probably have to have been, is somehow overshadowed by benevolent instincts. Given the fact that half a dozen individuals control half of the world’s wealth, four of whom are Americans, and that during 2016 there were 540 billionaires in the United States with a combined net worth of $2.399 trillion, that seems possible, albeit admittedly unlikely (I limited the discussion to billionaires given that that is the going price for presidential elections). During 2016 one such candidate stepped up to the plate and actually managed to win both his party’s political nomination (despite massive opposition from the party’s befuddled mainstream leaders) and then the presidency, but he was hardly a democratic socialist (in most ways he was perhaps its exact opposite) and we are seeing what happens to anyone who bucks-the-system, or tries to: personal and political annihilation by the mainstream media and its allies within the Deep State.
A second and more likely possibility for democratic socialists involves another recent political phenomenon, financing the purchase of elections through small contributions by a massive number of concerned citizens. That method was very successfully tapped by the Obama campaign but very quickly subsumed by access to traditional neoliberal economic sources (thank you Hillary) which quickly acquired control of the resulting political administration. This methodology is now being tapped massively by both major political parties through computerized permanent fundraising strategies and tactics that are efficiently separating voters from their hard earned savings, a dollar at a time. Unfortunately, such campaigns are largely reliant on hysterically hyperbolic appeals to negative emotions (the fear and fury twins) and have already led to attempted political assassinations and widespread social polarization. Now, many people initially drawn to the possibility of wresting political power from the entrenched neoliberal — neoconservative alliances, have become frustrated and disillusioned as well as tapped out. Thus, this financing method is evolving into a financial racket whose participants tend to be among the most polarized, the most emotionally unstable, and the least likely to make logical and informed political decisions; those whose minds are most firmly closed.
The third option is the one that has been adopted by the most progressive countries in the world most of which are already, at least in part, democratically socialist: strict public financing of elections limited to short political campaign seasons. While much of the world has resolved financial impediments to open, free and independent elections through exclusive government financing of political campaigns the likelihood of that occurring in the United States any time soon, if ever, seems as likely as attaining meaningful constitutional reform, or minimizing corruption, or of the New York Jets winning a second Super Bowl. The mainstream media could not afford the loss of so much income and the United States Supreme Court, controlled by major financial interests has spoken in support of unlimited financial participation in the electoral process (see Citizens United above). According to the Court, corporate entities have even more political rights than individuals (unless they’re very wealthy) and corporate entities’ political speech is spelled in dollars.
So again, where does that leave democratic socialism? Probably out in the cold, at least as an independent political movement. At least in the United States. But even were meaningful electoral reform to be enacted and the purchase of elections done away with, the attainment of democratic socialist goals in the United States would still seem unlikely.
Besides institutional, financial and other traditional political entry barriers, another huge impediment to the political evolution required for the attainment of political power by democratic socialists involves the traditional party practices of political misdirection and distraction characterized by the enactment of legislation and implementation of political policies that seem to address important issues but which in fact, obfuscate them, minimizing the political pressure necessary to effect meaningful change. Three recent examples of the foregoing involve the enactment of Obamacare as a means of derailing the push for single payer healthcare, the Paris Climate Accord as a means of derailing meaningful efforts at enactment of binding environmentally favorable domestic and international legislation, and the complex of “Russiagate” related “scandals” as a means of sidetracking all other meaningful political and international reforms. Progressives are being stampeded into participating in the soft coup attempt by the Democratic Party, the mainstream media and the intelligence community, and too many of them are losing their way in the ensuing and very exciting political turmoil, to the detriment of most of the things democratic socialists believe in.
The foregoing requires realistic examination into the fundamental premise of modern governance: can democracy as currently perceived, function? And the answer is probably and very sadly no. Democracy requires informed and intelligent participation by the vast majority of the citizenry. What we have instead is a highly manipulated verisimilitude of democracy controlled by a tiny and selfish firmly entrenched oligarchy. The fault is largely ours (unless one believes in God and then we could perhaps blame him, her or it). Nonparticipation seems inherent in our nature although coupled with a corresponding urge to complain. An analysis of an interesting, albeit all too small, sampling of movements in Latin America that succeeded in implementation of policies that led to social progress and common welfare reveals that, very ironically, some of the most effective social leaders were military officers or insurgents with personal military experience, (e.g., Juan Peron in Argentina, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in Colombia, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela). Many were democratically elected; however, democracies that does not elect those that governing oligarchies prefer are denominated populist, and evidently, that is not a positive thing. Unfortunately, the efforts of such populist leaders were quickly sabotaged and overwhelmed by more traditional globalist sociopolitical, economically controlled, neoliberal forces.
In recent years Latin America has played a leading role in what is referred to as New Constitutionalism. New Constitutionalism rejects the doctrine of separation of powers, accurately noting that historically, the independence attributed to the judiciary and the press has proven illusory and that rather than independent pillars of democracy those two institutions are much more often bastions of democracy-bashing oligarchies. Unfortunately, independent media and judiciaries are essential to democracy and merely ignoring rather than reforming such institutions has led to an imperfect system of executive-heavy democracy, a bit too similar to fascist leadership theories for comfort, even if many of the social welfare and human rights goals of democratic socialism coincide with accomplishments in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay, and even, in some respects, primarily involving public health and education, in countries like Cuba and Venezuela. But never fear, globalist neoliberals have opened up their purses in more and more successful efforts to undo such experiments with significant success with soft coups in Paraguay and Brazil, hard coups in Honduras and electoral purchases in Argentina and Mexico.
So, about democracy versus military-style governance. Certainly not a democratic-socialist-friendly scenario, but of course, that cannot happen in the US of A, right?
Or can it?
A sampling of popular opinion by the Guardian newspaper during 2015 (see https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/11/military-coup-some-americans-would-vote-yes) found that a full third of the United States electorate could support a military coup, a number that has probably risen in the currently hysterical political climate, something that democratic socialists find all too ominous and bit too possible for comfort. Americans in poll after poll show a worsening distrust of the Presidency, Congress, the mainstream media, lawyers and the courts. In fact, the only major institutions that have positive public ratings are the armed forces.
How ironic if the actions of the traditionally antimilitary Democratic Party (except with respect to the use of military force abroad), in its current quest for a soft coup to remove President Trump, leads to a Republican led military dictatorship. Not exactly the political climate for what we probably need most in order to attain the twin goals of peace and common welfare on which the United States was purportedly founded, but as occurred in the Roman Republic as it descended into civil strife, perhaps a weary and increasingly cynic public might see such change as the lesser evil, especially after having had lesser evil politics force fed to it for decades.
The sad consequence of all of the foregoing is that the likelihood today for the kind of meaningful and benign political evolution required for the attainment of political power by democratic socialists seems about as tangible as the most desirable mirage. It smells much more like the political climate following World War I that saw the rise of fascism and communism as alternatives to failed democracies.
Still, … oases really do exist and “improbable” is not synonymous with “impossible”. Perhaps history need not always repeat itself (feel free to insert any other helpful clichés that might make us feel more optimistic).
My part: It is said that “where there’s hope there’s life” although it seems precarious that I close so many of my articles with that aspiration.
“I think therefore I am”, Descartes. “Maybe we just think we are, (me, hopefully).
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved
Guillermo Calvo Mahé is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia. Until recently he chaired the Political Science, Government and International Relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science, law, international legal studies and translation studies and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Much of his writing is available through his blog at www.guillermocalvo.com