The official entrance of Bernie Sanders into the presidential race was greeted gleefully by the entire Republican Establishment. The White House has ramped up its message that the 2020 campaign is a choice between the whole of American history (as represented by Trump) and socialism — which it defines as Venezuelan-style government control combined with repression of dissent. Trump’s bizarre State of the Union declaration, “America will never be a socialist country,” has become his unofficial campaign motto.
This messaging strategy has been enabled by a wildly exaggerated sense of the Democratic Party’s leftward shift. The Democratic Party is still not “socialist” in any meaningful sense of the term, and to the extent socialism has exerted any influence upon it, it is not of the Venezuelan variety.
At the root of this fairy tale lie some tiny nuggets of truth. Bernie Sanders is an idiosyncratic bridge between Old Left fellow traveler and the mainstream liberalism of the Democratic Party. As a younger — or, I suppose, less old — politician, Sanders routinely praised communist leaders in places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Conservatives are gleefully dredging up old clips of Sanders praising the Soviet Union and even defending bread lines.
Sanders never completely abandoned the Marxist habit of describing American politics as a simple class struggle pitting the people against the “billionaire class.” The denouement of his presidential campaign has convinced a cadre of socialist activists to work within the Democratic Party, and they have established a foothold within it as foot soldiers and policy demanders. Some of these newly influential groups blur the line between liberal democracy and illiberal left-wing authoritarianism. The socialist magazine Jacobin, for instance, energetically defended the Chavez-Maduro regime. Left-wing activist Sean McElwee calls for the next Democratic administration to “dismantle Fox News” — which, as awful as Fox News might be, would be incompatible with small-d democratic government.
But, distressing though it may be, illiberalism remains a marginal tendency within the Democratic Party. Even Sanders, who is himself an outlier, has left behind his fellow-traveling habits. He is a political liberal who denounces authoritarian regimes like Venezuela (to the consternation of his most radical supporters) and openly defends the political rights of his opponents against left-wing efforts to shut them down.
Meanwhile Trump himself repurposes Stalinist lingo like “enemy of the people.” He routinely heaps praise on the most brutal dictators on the planet — not despite their brutality but precisely because of it. Republicans have selected Venezuela as their campaign theme in large part because it is one of the few dictatorships Trump does not admire. It is strange that Republicans are excitedly sharing 30-year-old clips of Bernie Sanders lauding aspects of the Soviet economy when Donald Trump is praising the North Korean economic model right now:
There is a bit more truth to the idea that the Democratic Party is moving left on economics. Still, the scale of the shift has been overplayed. Democrats may be moving left, but they remain to the right of most mainstream left parties in the world. News accounts have emphasized the trend rather than the level. The growing share of self-identified liberals within the party ranks has attracted far more attention than the fact that moderate and conservative Democrats still (slightly) outnumber liberals. Twitter battles pit leftists against liberals, but compared both to the Democratic Party’s elected officials and its voting basis, even the liberals occupy the left-of-center space.
The exaggeration of the party’s leftward shift is made apparent when the attempts to describe it try to summon specifics. Former president Bill Clinton’s “social and economic policies,” National Review’s David French asserts, “would make him right-leaning even within the modern Republican party.” Bill Clinton raised taxes on the rich, increased the Earned Income Tax Credit, raised the minimum wage, and attempted to pass universal health care, all of which are heretical positions within the GOP and were hysterically labeled as socialism by the GOP at the time Clinton did all these things.
Meanwhile, a New York Times account of Sanders’s influence begins, “Do you remember the old days of the Democratic Party? Universal health care was controversial. Boasting about taxing the rich was political suicide. And socialism was a dirty word.” In fact, the last two Democratic presidents openly tried to achieve universal health insurance, and both successfully raised taxes on the rich and boasted about it.
Socialism may not be a “dirty word,” exactly. But very few Democrats want to be associated with it — in part because it remains highly unpopular among the public at large.
Possible Democratic presidential nominees Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke have all explicitly disavowed the socialist label. Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bluntly told one questioner that the Democratic Party is capitalist.
I am old enough to remember when Pelosi was the prototype of the far-left ideology that would make Democrats radioactive in swing districts. (That was less than three months ago.) It is actually a form of progress that the liberal bogeyman has been replaced by the socialist bogeyman. For one thing, it’s much easier for Democrats to triangulate against socialism than it was for them to triangulate against liberalism. Trump’s campaign has given Democrats an easy way to position themselves in the center. All they need to do is say they believe in a role for free markets and reject socialism.
Parties move slowly and tend to change their character over long periods of time. The entrance of far-left policy demanders in the Democratic Party is a very notable development that might lead to important changes over the long run. In the short run, the party is mostly the same. And Trump’s notion that his reelection is all that stands between the United States and socialism is nothing more than a paranoid fantasy.