BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
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To hear it from the right-wing media, a new red menace is upon us.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: My gosh, socialism has never failed so vividly as it has in the modern times, and yet, these guys come out there and say. that’s what America needs. I don’t think so.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Venezuela is currently at one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Hunger and crime are rampant, clean water and medicine scarce. So why on earth would anybody want to bring those catastrophic policies and conditions to the US?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The New York Times hailing in a new op-ed, quote, “The millennial socialists are coming.”
BOB GARFIELD: After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory earlier this month in New York, the media and the political establishment are reckoning with the specter of a particular brand of left-wing politics.
[CBS THE LAST SHOW CLIP]:
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Democratic Socialism to me is the basic belief that in a moral and, and wealthy America, in a moral and modern America, no person should be too poor to live in this country.
BOB GARFIELD: In March, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by its staff columnist and avowed socialist Elizabeth Bruenig, called “It’s Time to Give Socialism a Try.” This week in the Miami Herald, the op-ed headline, “They Call Themselves Socialists But They Don’t Know the Meaning of the Word.” And on ABC’s The View, this exchange.
MEGHAN McCAIN: This is what I need from her. Name one country where socialism has ever worked.
JOY BEHAR: Sweden.
MEGHAN McCAIN: And also every, every Democratic Socialist --
JOY BEHAR: Copenhagen -- Denmark.
MEGHAN McCAIN: -- who is going on TV saying that it’s good --
JOY BEHAR: Norway.
MEGHAN McCAIN: -- needs to start paying 90 percent in taxes.”
JOY BEHAR: Finland, Iceland.
MEGHAN McCAIN: On your tax forms, no, on your tax forms!
BOB GARFIELD: Socialism, an idea once relegated to the kind of far-left newspapers given out at campus conferences, has become fodder for daytime talk shows, a clear offering in the marketplace of ideas, though its adherents might prefer to think of it as simply an idea whose time has come.
Nathan Robinson is editor-in-chief at Current Affairs magazine and a self-described socialist. Nathan, welcome to the show.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Hi, nice to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a word watch to define socialism, which is kind of like having a word watch to define meat.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Very true.
BOB GARFIELD: There are a lot of different kinds of meat.
NATHAN ROBINSON: So it’s not just like describing meat, it’s like describing of lot of abstract terms, like love, democracy, liberalism. Broadly, socialism describes a left economic tendency. There are things that nearly all socialists agree on, a skepticism of the concentration of economic power in a few hands, a belief that working people, laborers, need more control over their workplaces, need more ownership of their lives, a broad skepticism of capitalists and landlords. Then what you’re going to do about that, there are huge raging arguments among socialists and have been for centuries.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s fair to say, I suppose, that the common thread is taking care of the many, even at some risk of arguable unfairness to the few.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Yes, and a belief that fairness, itself, requires justice to all and there’s an egalitarian instinct to it, you know, the fair distribution of resources.
BOB GARFIELD: Part of that definition would include status quo, public policy, like Medicare. What parts of the status quo do reflect that kind of socialist worldview?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, the parts that guarantee people a basic standard of living and accessible to all. I just read an article about public libraries, why socialists love public libraries. They are places that are free for everybody. They’re controlled by the local people who have authority over them; they’re not controlled by a company. And there is that sense of everyone is equal in a public library.
BOB GARFIELD: Although it does, to some, seem fearsome. It’s the kind of socialism that is usually prefixed with the word “creeping.”
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, public libraries embody an egalitarian spirit and they do sort of challenge the perspective that almost everything other than basic services, like police and the military, should be left to the market. And public libraries show an example of a well-run state institution. They kind of prove something, which is a little dangerous to a certain kind of a free-market orthodoxy, which is that they suggest that state-run institutions aren't necessarily a nightmare. So the public library kind of provides a vision of a way that common ownership and common control could work. So I, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to view it as creeping. I think it does creep.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Actually, not the answer I was expecting.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Oh, sorry. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: What I thought you were going to say was, look, yes but no because libraries are not collectivism.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Oh! [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: But this gets to the very point. I guess the fact that there is a relationship is precisely the thing that scares so many people, such as during the Red Scare, although Soviet Communism really isn’t the thing that is the big talking point nowadays on the right. It seems to be Venezuela.
MAN: You know, as we look at other countries, like Venezuela, etc., where socialism is imploding their country, do we really want that here?
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS: What happened in Venezuela? They call that Democratic Socialism but they don’t have toilet paper…
MAN: Note to socialism fans, go visit Venezuela.
NATHAN ROBINSON: The fact that a country calls itself “socialist” doesn’t really tell you anything. North Korea calls itself a democracy. You have to look at how the country actually operates. For those of us who are Democratic Socialists, who are very strongly anti-authoritarian, who are skeptical of the concentration of unaccountable power, Venezuela doesn’t tell you much at all because we oppose every measure that would increase centralized and, and dictatorial power.
This isn’t a verdict on whether people should have democratic control over their workplaces. They don't have that in Venezuela, just like they didn't have it in the USSR, and that’s why there were a lot of libertarian socialists, people like Bertrand Russell and Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were all horrified by the Soviet Union. Emma Goldman wrote an essay, “There is No Communism in Russia.” Her whole idea was, well, it, it only exists if people are actually equal, and equality was a lie in the Soviet Union. So it doesn't invalidate the idea of equality. What it invalidates is using authoritarian methods to sort of impose the illusion of equality on people by force.
BOB GARFIELD: A moment ago, we played a clip from Fox & Friends to show their horror at the word “socialism” but you have to go to the propaganda mouthpiece of the Trump White House to get that reaction. Here's a clip from CBS in which Nancy Pelosi was asked to respond to Republicans who say that Democratic Socialists are ascendant in her party.
NANCY PELOSI: No, they're not. It's ascendant in that district perhaps but I don't accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans.
BOB GARFIELD: The Democrats are terrified of the word too. Why?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, I think some of them sincerely believe that from a pragmatic perspective they have to distance themselves from that word because it -- you know, especially for older Democrats, they remember the Cold War, they r -- they think that America has been trained for a century to be horrified by this concept. But I think they don’t understand people in my generation have had to witness an economy that has crushed so many of our peers in debt and in hopelessness, we want a different word and we want something that can help to distinguish the values that we are putting forward from the values that have built the economy that we see treating people so badly.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the one hand, Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, got within a hair's breadth of the Democratic nomination, sort of, while being unabashedly a socialist. On the other hand, I remember this image from, I think it was Obama's first campaign. There was a rally against him and a woman [LAUGHS] was holding a poster that said “Keep your socialist hands off my Medicare” --
NATHAN ROBINSON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- which was accidentally hilarious but it does show that the word itself is so -- loaded.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think it can be redeemed or reclaimed?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, I didn't think that before the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and I did think that afterwards. I mean, the big argument at the time was, oh well, he may be polling well but if America found out about his socialism they would turn on him. Well, he’s still the most popular politician in America. The polls still show him defeating Donald Trump if he were to run in 2020 at 78 years old. I think it's obvious from that that it isn't political suicide.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, what we've learned from polling is that if you describe a single-payer health system or call it Medicare for all, a majority of Americans are all thumbs up to that.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: If you call it socialized medicine or Obamacare, they are, what’s the matter with you, you commie.
NATHAN ROBINSON: The agenda, when it’s explained to people, is very popular. I mean, Bernie Sanders did better in Trump-voting districts in, you know, rural West Virginia and rural Michigan than Hillary Clinton did, even with his Democratic Socialist agenda because he was able to go and he was able to explain what he meant by that. So that’s why when Fox News puts the list of Ocasio-Cortez policies up on the screen --
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Cortez is pushing for, let’s see, single-payer universal healthcare, universal jobs, government-subsidized housing for everybody, tuition-free colleges.
NATHAN ROBINSON: They have trouble explaining why it’s bad.
BOB GARFIELD: What you seem to be describing is galvanizing the principles of the Occupy movement into an ongoing political force.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Yeah. There was a very strong anarchist strain in the Occupy camps that was skeptical of anyone who ran for office in a belief that if you ran for office that was compromise with existing systems of power. And, of course, Occupy kind of fizzled. I mean, it left a legacy but the camps were cleared away and everyone had to go home and, and go back to work, eventually.
I think what you're seeing now is the spirit of Occupy, the sort of radical, almost utopian spirit, combined with a much more pragmatic sense of how to get things done politically. And I think Bernie Sanders was very inspirational there in showing that it seemed possible for people on the left to work within the Democratic Party and to take over offices in the Democratic Party. And Ocasio-Cortez is also proof of that. I'm going to Michigan this weekend to report on the Abdul El-Sayed gubernatorial campaign there, which is another part of this tendency to combine radicalism with a kind of pragmatism.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you describe the early part of the 20th century where not just here but most of Europe was making a very big choice between capitalism and socialism, That ended up in a lot of violence [LAUGHS] but it wasn't quite as bellicose here, was it?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, what’s interesting about that period is that you see a lot of the same debates on the left as are going on now. I’ve just been reading and writing about the American Socialist Movement, which has a fascinating sort of untold history where there were actually a thousand Socialist Party elected officials around the country in the period between about 1908 and 1912. And they included city councilmen, state legislators, two congressmen. There were three Socialist mayors of Milwaukee. And there was the same debate among the Socialist Party of whether they were revolutionaries or reformists. So you had more radical Marxist Socialists arguing that the Socialist elected officials weren't sufficiently Socialist because they were running on a platform of good government and zoning municipal utilities and, and the eight-hour workday, rather than overthrowing the bourgeoisie.
But what's interesting is that the people who would sort of be the parallel to today's Bernie Sanders Democratic Socialists started doing quite well, making it into office. The Socialists introduced lots and lots of bills in the state legislature in Wisconsin and Massachusetts and they got quite a few bills passed, bills to regulate child labor and reduce working hours, that sort of thing.
But it’s an interesting parallel and also an interesting warning because in the United States the Socialist Party kind of tore itself apart with these debates, without being able to come to a consensus about what they were and also because the other political parties, interestingly enough, kind of took parts of the Socialist agenda, which the Socialists had normalized, like the reduction of working hours and the improvement of safety conditions in the workplace, and those things became standard parts of both the Democratic and Republican agendas, leaving the sort of moderate socialists without a platform.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan, thank you so much.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Thanks, Bob.
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BOB GARFIELD: Nathan Robinson is editor-in-chief at Current Affairs magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the press corps has united against a common enemy, for now, even Fox.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.