If they’re worried about what’s driving the growing appeal of socialism, they need to look in the mirror.
By Michael Tomasky
Contributing Opinion Writer
I’ve been fretting lately about the state of mind of America’s capitalists. All these socialists coming out of the woodwork must have them in quite a lather. So I write today with some friendly advice for the capitalist class about said socialists.
You want fewer socialists? Easy. Stop creating them.
Every once in a while in history, cause and effect smack us in the face. The conditions under which the czars forced Russians to live gave rise to Bolshevism. The terms imposed at Versailles fueled Hitler’s ascent. The failures of Keynesianism in the 1970s smoothed the path for supply-side economics.
And so it is here. As I noted recently in The Daily Beast, the kind of capitalism that has been practiced in this country over the last few decades has made socialism look far more appealing, especially to young people. Ask yourself: If you’re 28 like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congressional candidate who describes herself as a democratic socialist, what have you seen during your sentient life?
You’ve seen the United States go from being a country that your parents — or if you’re 28, more likely your grandparents — described as a place where life got better for every succeeding generation to a place where for millions of people, quite possibly including you, that’s no longer true.
As that happened, you’ve seen the rich get richer, and you’ve perhaps noticed that the government’s main response to this has been to keep cutting their taxes (in fairness, President Barack Obama did raise the highest rate in 2013 to 39.6 percent from 35 percent, although for single filers, that rate didn’t kick in until earned income went above $400,000).
You witnessed the financial meltdown of 2008, caused by big banks betting against themselves. Capitalists might want to consider how all that looked to a young person who came from a working-class family and who probably knows someone who lost a job or even his house, while some of the bankers who helped create the mess walked away with golden parachutes, like that of Countrywide Financial’s Angelo Mozilo, which The Times valued at $88 million.
You’ve watched corporations hoard profits, buy back their stock and not reinvest in their workers the way they once did as they move jobs to Central America and Bangladesh. If you read a lot, you know that stock buybacks were permitted under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b-18, which dates to the Reagan era, and that since it’s just an S.E.C. rule, it can be changed without having to pass legislation, but no one in either of the Democratic administrations since then bothered.
I could go on like this for 20 paragraphs. Many more, in fact. But you get the idea. Back in the days when our economy just grew and grew, we had a government and a capitalist class that invested in our people and their future — in the Interstate highways, the community colleges, the scientific research, the generous federal grants for transportation and regional development.
And, funny thing, during all this time, socialism didn’t have much appeal. Back in the 1910s and ’20s, during an era of intense labor strife and before the existence of the welfare state, there were a couple of Socialist Party members in the House of Representatives — Victor Berger of Wisconsin and Meyer London of New York — as well as hundreds of Socialist mayors and state legislators and local officials.
But during the “Trente Glorieuses,” to use the French term — the glorious 30 years from 1945 to 1975 when everything largely worked in Western economies — socialism’s appeal in America waned. In the 1910s and ’20s, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidates received hundreds of thousands of votes, or more. In 1956, the party’s presidential hopeful, Darlington Hoopes, won a mere 2,044 votes (other small leftist parties did somewhat better).
During this time and into the Reagan era, the broader American left — defined not by party but by belief — played a constructive role in supporting civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War and doing what it could to fight the new concentration of wealth. But, with the Cold War raging, its numbers were small and its influence negligible.
So, back now to our 28-year-old. She was born in 1990. She will probably remember, in the late ’90s, her parents feeling pretty good about things — median household income did go up under Bill Clinton more than they had under any president in a long time, even more than under Ronald Reagan. But ever since, the median income picture has been much spottier, hardly increasing at all in inflation-adjusted dollars over 18 long years. And those incomes at the top have shot to the heavens.
So if you were a person of modest or even middle-class means, how would you feel about capitalism? The kind of capitalism this country has been practicing for all these years has failed most people.
Yes, it’s given us lots of shiny objects to gush about. A smartphone that can display slow-motion video is a wonder. But an affordable college education, though perhaps not a wonder, is a necessity for a well-ordered society. So is a solution to a national drug crisis in which 115 people die every day, as well as a lot of other problems that the capitalism of our era has simply ignored.
I have mixed feelings about this socialism boomlet. It has yet to prove itself politically viable in general elections outside a handful of areas, and by 2021 we could wake up and see that it’s been a disaster for Democrats.
But I understand completely why it’s happening. Given what’s been going on in this country, it couldn’t not have happened. And if you’re a capitalist, you’d better try to understand it, too — and do something to address the very legitimate grievances that propelled it.
Michael Tomasky is a columnist for The Daily Beast, editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and a contributing opinion writer.
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