From presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, figures who openly call themselves “democratic socialists” dominate much of the discussion within the Democratic Party. How did this happen? How has America gone from a nation in which socialist arguments are on the fringe to one in which they are the topic of mainstream debate?
How did this happen? How has America gone from a nation in which socialist arguments are on the fringe to one in which they are the topic of mainstream debate?
Part of the answer may be that today’s socialists downplay its more obvious Marxian excesses (to say nothing of its bloody history). Even Bernie Sanders has stopped calling for government ownership of the means of production. Today’s socialism entails a managed economy, one that is, at least ostensibly, in private hands, while being guided by tax policies, prohibitions, and demands from the administrative state. (Here one often hears laudatory invocations of Denmark or Sweden.) Thanks to work by Cass Sunstein and others, socialists have been able effectively to recast socialism as mere “nudging” by friendly administrators to help people choose what they ought to want and do. Socialism is outsourced to private industry.
But outsourced socialism remains essentially socialist. The government still controls how things are produced, by whom, and at what prices, as well as controlling who consumes how much of what. It is part of the same movement toward ever-more government control over citizens’ lives, as evidenced by the so-called Green New Deal, which would go beyond even the ungainly welfare states of Europe’s “democratic socialist” countries.
Why does this re-branded socialism seem to appeal to a significant portion of the electorate?
For generations, now, our young people have been taught that government administrators know better than the people who build businesses, employ people, grow our food, and make things that can improve our lives. But the problem goes deeper than bad education. The problem is what has happened to us, and to our society, after decades of “nudging.”
This brings us to the most important reason for socialism’s resurgence: In a word, loneliness. More Americans are susceptible to the allure of socialism because more of us find ourselves adrift, looking for meaning, purpose, and belonging in the world. It would be easy to caricature this statement as a mere appeal to emotions. But I’m referring to loneliness not just as an emotion state but as an objective one — Marxists would call it “alienation” — of being disconnected from the natural associations in which people learn to lead flourishing lives together.
More Americans are susceptible to the allure of socialism because more of us find ourselves adrift, looking for meaning, purpose, and belonging in the world.
Commentators have lamented for years now that the rising generation seems incapable of, well, rising. It may be easy to make fun of young people for demanding “safe spaces” from ideas they find objectionable or bristling at “microaggressions” or requiring classes in “adulting” or failing to leave home for college or to find productive work or moving back in with their parents after graduation. But the situation is serious. Nor is the crisis of loneliness restricted to young people. Americans, including young adults and middle-aged people, are dying in increasing numbers from addictions and suicides.
Sociologist Robert Nisbet spent most of his career pointing out that all of us need community, and that if we can’t have the real thing, we’ll settle for false community — including that of political activism. Socialism appeals to many Americans because it promises a sense of belonging. The Green New Deal, like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, is a massive program intended to transform America; like the “war on poverty,” it promises a “war on global warming.” That is, it offers, not just free stuff, but a mission — a way of signaling virtue and a reason to join together to achieve something that many people find meaningful.
Where once we found a reason to live in daily life within our families, churches, and local associations, today increasing numbers of Americans look to large-scale and fanciful political projects to fill the void in their lives. That void was created when our families began breaking apart (or failing even to form), when our churches emptied (or became mere centers for political organizing), and when our local associations withered away (or became mere appendages of federal programs).
Socialism appeals to many Americans because it promises a sense of belonging.
This deterioration of our civil institutions is dangerous because it raises the stakes in our national politics. When politics matters more than our families or communities, ideological arguments end up dominating every aspect of our lives. We may turn from friends to enemies or leave spouses over political disagreements. In the extreme, that way leads to political violence and the breakdown of republican government.
Political dominance of public life is also dangerous because it makes each of us more and more dependent on government for our well-being — for our health care, for financial support, for protection against the risks we all face in life, including the loss of jobs. We were not alone in facing these risks before the central government took on the role of our grand protector. We looked to people we knew, our communities, who often knew best what we needed to get back on our feet without stripping from us our dignity and capacity for self-help. Socialists and other centralizers, often motivated by a desire to help, have substituted bureaucratic structures for these human relationships. In the process, they have destroyed our natural associations and left us stranded and alone to face life’s challenges as wards of our parents (should they have the means and will to support us) or worse, dehumanized wards of the state.
Today increasing numbers of Americans look to large-scale and fanciful political projects to fill the void in their lives.
There is no easy answer to our predicament. It has been taking shape over many decades. Today, our politics have become poisonous because we demand too much of them. And we demand too much of them because we have allowed political programs, under the guise of benevolent policies, to undermine the real relationships and communities in which we learn to take care of ourselves and our fellows.
Read the full article at RealClear Policy.