Reviews | Is Joe Biden a Stealth Socialist?
- Joe Biden finds it difficult to assert that “I am a capitalist. I am not a socialist.
- Much of what Biden is proposing would seem right at home in Scandinavia and Western Europe.
- These nations are not really “socialist” at all, even though they are celebrated by America’s most famous socialist.
- Republicans really, really hate socialism — but will also cry bloody murder if the Democrats suggest they want to tamper with the most blatantly socialist agendas of the US government.
Making sense of these claims does not require squaring the circle; what is needed is to understand how amorphous the term “socialist” is and why, whatever Biden’s political goals are, they fit firmly within American political tradition – and may in fact be a political very smart.
Throughout his two presidential runs, Sen. Bernie Sanders he was asked what it meant that he called himself a “democratic socialist”. Invariably, the Vermont independent pointed the finger at Scandinavian nations and their universal health care, paid family leave, and free college education. (He did not call on the government to “control the means of production and distribution,” the classic definition of socialism and an omission at odds with the Democratic Socialists of America, a 92,000-member organization that says, “We want to collectively own the prime movers economic factors that dominate our lives, such as energy production and transportation. “)
But are Denmark, Sweden and Norway really “socialist” nations? They wouldn’t cut it for the DSA. The private sector is alive and kicking, corporations have a lighter tax burden than in the United States, and even their healthcare systems are far from fully public. In Sweden, according to one estimate, some 40% of health clinics are private, for-profit companies.
Indeed, throughout the industrialized world, the traditional goal of socialism has long since been abandoned, even as elements of its fundamental philosophy have been incorporated into government policy. For example, Germany, whether run by centre-right Christian Democrats or centre-left Social Democrats, is a staunchly capitalist land, but its laws also demand that workers be well represented in supervisory boards of large companies, where key decisions are made. In Britain, the Labor Party under Tony Blair renounced nationalization nearly 30 years ago. The last Labor leader to embrace the idea, Jeremy Corbyn, presided over a historic battle at the polls, and current leader Keir Starmer has said he will not nationalize the energy industry (although an important part of the base of the party adopts the notion of “common property”).
Ideas such as universal health care and broad workers’ rights have long been labeled “social democracy”: if not full socialism, then the idea that government should create a strong social safety net, impose higher taxes on the rich and limiting the power of the private sector. (Those who see Karl Marx’s hand in such ideas – as Ronald Reagan did when he attacked the idea of Medicare in 1964 – must face the fact that the father of insurance government-funded old age and sickness was the ardent anti-socialist Otto von Bismarck, who first proposed the idea in 1881).
In the 2020 Democratic presidential race, the left had its champions and Biden was certainly not one of them. But even the most committed Bernie Bro could recognize the president’s progress in pushing America toward social democracy.
Consider the elements of Biden’s $40 billion bipartisan investment in semiconductor manufacturing — itself an impressive display of industrial policy. The package comes with strings, notes the New York Times. Companies must pay union wages; they must share part of their profits with the government; they must provide free childcare services to their workers; they must operate their factories with energy sources that respect the environment. These proposals go hand-in-hand with some of Biden’s most ambitious policies, some of which, like expanding the child tax credit, have expired, and some of which, like capping the price of insulin for the elderly, remain in place and have been adopted by the private sector. His recent State of the Union address contained a series of proposals aimed at limiting the power of private companies, whether by capping excessive airline baggage fees or hidden credit card fees.
The Republican response to all of this has been to raise the specter of “socialism.” Last month, the GOP-controlled House voted 328 to 86 for a resolution declaring that “socialist ideology requires a concentration of power that has time and again broken down in communist regimes, totalitarian rule and brutal dictatorships. … Congress denounces socialism in all its forms and opposes the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America. If the goal was to divide their adversaries, the Republicans succeeded: more than 100 Democrats voted for the resolution which, taken at face value, would condemn the policies of some of America’s most staunch allies, and which was clearly designed to throw shade at the president.
Of course, almost as vocal as the GOP’s denunciation of socialism was its fury at the very idea that the party might be putting its finger on the two most clearly socialist elements of American politics – Social Security and health insurance.
When Biden used his State of the Union address to note that “some” Republicans were suggesting program cuts — most notably the senator. Rick Scott of Florida — GOP lawmakers erupted in anger. Scott, for his part, quickly amended his proposal to sunset government programs by exempting popular social insurance schemes. It is reminiscent of a citizen’s cry at a congressional town hall meeting years ago: “Keep your government off my medicare!” (Notably, Donald Trump also deserves some credit for steering the GOP away from a free-market orthodoxy aimed at slashing pension programs.)
It’s a little unfair to attribute cognitive dissonance solely to Republicans. Confusion about what constitutes “socialism” is pervasive. Polls show that Americans frown on “entitlements,” but overwhelmingly approve of Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits — in other words, the programs people are entitled to under the law. Sanders’ idea of free tuition for public colleges may seem like a reach, but a generation or two ago, free college was widely available. The City University of New York was deemed free from 1847 to 1976, and many state universities once charged only fees. In some places, community college is still free.
A large majority of Americans see health care as a right, even though the majority of Americans say the government is too powerful and tries to do too much. This dissonance was crystallized by the election victory of Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” and then presided over a larger government. when he left her. (By the way, Margaret Thatcher never tried to repeal British National Health Insurance.)
In this populist moment, Biden has also won plaudits from left and right for flexing the muscle of government when it comes to cracking down on Big Tech and the growth of monopolies, whether in the form of corporations. airlines or book publishers. Biden is showing his Rooseveltian roots, not just FDR but TR.
A long-standing debate exists over why socialism failed to take root in the United States, unlike in Europe. In the short term, the success of Biden’s “social democracy” efforts will hinge on his ability – as many of his Democratic predecessors did – to frame his politics not as the import of foreign ideology, but in as part of an ongoing effort. make the economic playing field fairer and safer without changing the fundamental rules of the game.
For a century or more, these efforts have met with powerful resistance, even as the political consensus gradually shifts towards a more robust American welfare state. The most recent example: Republicans have abandoned their efforts to repeal Obamacare after years of pressure to do so. It turns out that with somewhat more modest ambitions, “socialism” has found some sort of home in this land of individual freedom – provided you call it anything else.