For some on the right who sold books, sat behind microphones, or crafted the themes that GOP candidates deployed on the campaign trail, one word dominated in the Obama era: Socialism. Today, there is no shortage of self-criticism among conservatives who engaged in that enterprise. The public sector activism endorsed by Obama and his allies was culturally progressive—not socially reactionary, as genuinely socialist regimes tend to be. The redistributionist policies the 44th president favored were leftist, but he did not endorse collectivization or nationalization as socialists do. Conservatives critical of this period’s rhetorical excesses blame themselves for breaking down the stigma once associated with unalloyed socialism.
Perhaps conservatives played a role in over-diagnosing collectivist impulses, but that alone cannot explain the Anglo-American left’s souring on center-left politics. According to Gallup polling, the collapse of faith in capitalism among rank-and-file Democrats is a recent phenomenon. Just 47 percent have a positive view of capitalism—the most successful anti-poverty program in human history—a decline of nine points since 2016, while the party’s faith in the value of socialism hovers stably around 60 percent. Unsurprisingly, that decline in support for the capitalist model is sharpest among Americans under 29-years-old, who have no living memory of the kind of socialism practiced in what we used to call the Second World.
Conservatives must not become hostage to self-doubt. They are, however, obliged to sharpen and narrow their criticisms of the collectivist philosophy at the foundations of many of today’s most popular liberal policy proposals.
For example, New York Times contributing opinion writer Bryce Covert has recently submitted a criticism of Senator Marco Rubio’s plan to expand access to paid family leave, which would allow Americans to access a portion of the money they pay into Social Security early. Covert proposed as an alternative a “tiny” new payroll tax that would preserve Social Security’s capacity to offset retirement and disability costs. This is standard liberal fare, but the ethos that buttresses her recommendation is not. Rubio’s plan, she wrote, “perpetuates the idea that child-rearing is an individual, not a collective, responsibility.” The collectivization of child-rearing and the breakdown of the “bourgeois family” so as “to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class” is straight out of the Communist Manifesto.
The Democratic Party’s newest rock star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has become a caricature of the ignorance and arrogance typical of the collectivist left. In what was perhaps just an exercise in throat clearing, she recently noted that the problem of destitution in New York City coincides with the fact that there are approximately three vacant apartments in the city for every one homeless person. Surrendering to their ill-considered impulse to boost every Democratic utterance, the fact-checking outlet PolitiFact assured its readers that Ocasio-Cortez was alluding to a feasible solution to the matter of homelessness. Leaving aside the selectivity and motivated reasoning on display here, Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal—ostensibly the seizure of private property to effect a societal reversal—mirrors Friedrich Engels’s 1872 plan to ameliorate homelessness via the “expropriation of the present owners” of property.
Political observers have been unable to ignore the Democratic Party’s recent turn away from Barack Obama’s signature health-care reform law and toward a government monopoly on health insurance. Call it Medicare-for-all or single-payer; the new affinity among Democrats for the functional nationalization of the health insurance industry speaks to a paradigm shift on the left. Likewise, establishing as a right the ability to access tuition-free education at public universities and a federal jobs guarantee—all planks of the Democratic Socialist agenda with increasingly broad appeal—are pillars of the Soviet Constitution. These policy prescriptions go quite a bit further than, say, Elizabeth Warren-style proposals to compel certain American businesses to offer their employees a stock ownership plan. That may be intrusive and statist, but it isn’t explicitly socialistic.
It wasn’t long ago that the Western liberal establishment would regard this kind of creeping reversion to the mid-century leftist mean as electoral poison. Bill Clinton once bristled with indignation over the notion that his health-care reform proposals constituted a form of collectivism. He celebrated the triumph of “freedom” in the 20th century, which he defined as the “victory” of “free enterprise over state socialism.” On April 25, 1999, Clinton hosted a roundtable discussion featuring ascendant center-left leadership from around the world. This new movement, the president boasted, included “five members of the last Politburo of the Soviet Union.”
Seated next to Clinton was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arguably did more to banish leftism from his party’s ranks than Clinton did in America. In 1995, Blair drove a stake through the heart of the “definitely socialistic” Clause IV of the Labour Party’s 1918 constitution, which endorsed “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” Under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, that meant the nationalization of industry—an economically stifling program that was dismantled by Margaret Thatcher. The redrafting of Clause IV was an effort to purge socialism from the Labour Party’s DNA, and it worked. At least, for a time. Today, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a proud anachronism with disturbing attachments to terrorists and anti-Semites, advocates the restoration of the old Clause IV and, with it, “public control of the railways.”
In May, Hillary Clinton was asked if her decision to label herself a “capitalist” hurt her in the surprisingly competitive 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. “Probably,” she replied. After all, she said, “41 percent of [Iowa] Democrats are socialists or self-described socialists.” But what is the party to do? Socialism is where the activism is. It’s where the small-dollar donations are, and where the most energetic campaign volunteers’ affinities lie.
Perhaps the party’s elders think that this is no time for a lecture on the human misery, economic inefficiency, cronyism, and statist oppression that socialism begets. After all, there are elections to win. So they flatter the economically and historically illiterate in their ranks. Maybe they think they can control the monster they’re bringing back to life, but that is hubris and cowardice. The time to pump the brakes on socialism’s revival is now; before it has won a mandate at the polls. If Democrats pass on this opportunity, they will find themselves prisoners to their party’s collectivists soon enough. After all, taking captives is what socialism does best.