As the Democratic Party’s 20-plus presidential candidates jockey for primacy with primary voters, two questions drive their positioning: who can defeat Donald Trump, and what agenda will Democrats embrace?
The latter is now being fought along a continuum ranging from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s far-left “democratic socialism” to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s pragmatic centrism. Center-right, Clinton-type triangulators aren’t welcome.
There are two ways to consider the party’s leftward shift. The first is as a reaction to Trump. Yet, much of what Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren espouse today are policies they favored before Trump was nominated and elected.
The second explanation is a better fit: their proposals represent an ongoing reaction to the 2008-2009 Great Recession’s unresolved issues of income inequality, a political system “rigged” by special interests, corporate greed, overpriced healthcare and college tuition, plus climate change and high-tech companies using algorithms to compromise individual privacy. (Remember how Wall Street algorithms exacerbated the Great Recession with their flawed assumption that home prices would never decline?)
Today’s Democrats are “progressives” not “liberals.” But how many will embrace “democratic socialism”? What’s also driving the Democratic Party left is AOC-type enthusiasm for ideals that may sound good on paper but are impracticable economically.
After World War II, many European countries had vibrant “social democrat” parties. The United States never followed this path and, instead, evolved a two-party system whose competing ideologies have typically swung between agrarian Jeffersonian populism and urban Hamiltonian big government. Socialist ideas, democratic or otherwise, don’t play well here. We’re individualists, not collectivists.
And yet, at least two Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have soft spots for Marxist-socialist policies. As Burlington, Vermont’s mayor, Bernie Sanders spent his 1988 honeymoon in Yaroslavl, Russia, Burlington’s sister city. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio honeymooned in Cuba in 1994. Both candidates had favorable things to say about these regimes. Were they sincere, or was this youthful idealism untempered by practical reality? The public needs to know.
Increasingly, Sanders reminds me of Marxist-communist-socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who taught at London’s Birkbeck College for decades. When he died at age 95 in 2012, Hobsbawm was the world’s most widely read historian. In his teenage years, Hobsbawm became a committed communist in reaction against Europe’s rising tide of fascism. He later softened his communist leanings after Stalin’s atrocities became public, especially after the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary.
British historian Richard Evans (author of three outstanding volumes about the Nazi years) has recently published a monumental Hobsbawm biography. The book is worth reading if you want to understand the youthful appeal of Marxism, Communism, and socialist ideologies. For Hobsbawm, communism was a “dream of general liberation, the liberation of mankind, the liberation of the poor.”
Evans describes Hobsbawm’s last two books as presenting “the gripping and moving sight of a lifelong communist struggling in old age to come to terms not only with the political failure of the cause to which he had devoted the best part of his life, but also to reach some understanding of why it had failed and how much damage it had done.”
Marxism favors state ownership of the means of production and working-class conflict. Had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, attacking income inequality would have been a priority. Free college and Medicare for all raise ownership considerations; a guaranteed income, reparations, an increased minimum wage, and a millionaire’s tax raise potential class-conflict issues. Trump’s relentless focus on economic growth, deregulation, and immigration point in another direction. In 2020, Americans will have to choose.
Notwithstanding his Marxist perspective, Eric Hobsbawm was an outstanding historian and a likeable person. Thanks to Evans, we can understand more clearly the delusional ideology under which Hobsbawm lived most of his life. He finally realized that his ideology had lost; the march of history so anticipated and predicted by Karl Marx had, in fact, taken a different direction.
It’s now up to today’s Democrats to clarify their directional march for 2020 and beyond. “Democratic socialism” won’t work politically, especially if the American economy remains strong well into next year.
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.