Early though it is, the presidential campaign for the 2020 election already is turning hot. For Republicans, the choice is binary: Donald Trump, or not. For Democrats though, it’s much more complex. There are 23 candidates who fill their party’s spectrum from left to right. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs argues that there are perils to supporting one side of that spectrum.
One day years ago while on assignment in the Soviet Union, I stopped at the bottom of the steps coming down from my Moscow hotel, right across from the Kremlin, to have my shoes shined. There was a man on the sidewalk, balanced on his knees, his small wooden shoeshine kit in front of him.
I lifted my leg and put my foot on the kit and, through a Russian-speaking colleague who was with me, started talking with the man as he shined my shoes. What I learned was, this guy didn’t even own that little wooden box. Like everything in the Soviet Union, it was the property of the State.
In the real world, that is the very definition of “socialism.” Which is important to understand because “socialism” already has become a traitorous tag in the presidential race, and it will likely get even worse.
The trouble is, after decades in the reporting business, and more years in the opinion business, I can’t count the number of Americans I’ve interviewed who, when railing against government regulations or authority or oversight, call it “socialism.” They don’t have a clue.
If they haven’t seen what socialism looks like firsthand, they ought to take a look its definitions in the dictionary:
- Collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods;
- A system of society or group living in which there is no private property;
- A system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.
These words all applied in the USSR to my shoeshine man and his little wooden kit.
I’m not a socialist. By measure of what I’ve seen and heard in my career as a journalist, most Democrats aren’t. Not even those farthest to the left who are running for president. We all want the people who shine our shoes to own their own business, or at least work for someone who does.
But to hear the Republican propaganda machine ramping up, you wouldn’t know it. Anyone calling for any kind of government involvement in our lives is a socialist.
What’s worse, if history is any guide, the machine won’t stop there. It will equate “socialism” with “communism.” And what do we think about when we hear “communism?” An undemocratic government. The suppression of human rights. A police state. The Gulag.
Do you remember the presidential campaign of 2004? John Kerry vs George W. Bush. Kerry was the guy who’d gone to Vietnam. Bush was the guy who hadn’t. But the propaganda machine used conservative Vietnam vets who supported Bush to paint him as the patriot and Kerry as the traitor— it was called “Swift boating,” named after the kind of patrol boat on which Kerry served. (For the record, most of the Navy vets who actually served alongside Kerry supported him.)
That was 2004. The Stone Age. In this far more advanced era of unsocial media, heaven only knows what the propaganda machine will conjure up.
Just last week, Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably the candidate farthest left on the spectrum, tried to fend off that machine and soft-pedal his own label as a “democratic socialist;” he framed it as the legacy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “We must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal,” he declared, “and carry it to completion.” He invoked programs that have long since become rightful expectations of almost all Americans, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
Probably safe territory, because ask Americans how they feel about, say, Social Security, and across the board, most will endorse it. But if, instead of asking people if they like Social Security, you ask if they like the idea of universal pensions supported by taxpayer dollars? You’ll get a lot of different answers, which will amount to three words: “Sounds like socialism.”
If you don’t believe it, look back only a few years to the debate over healthcare. Polls were taken asking people how they felt about the Affordable Care Act, and once they heard its features, support was widespread. But then, asked how they felt about Obamacare— which of course was merely the unofficial label for the very same thing— millions were flat-out against it. “Socialism!”
One Democratic candidate in this year’s race has staked out territory to combat that. In early June, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper said emphatically to the California State Democratic Convention, “Socialism is not the answer.” He got booed by members of his own party who, in my opinion, can’t see the forest through the trees. But he is right. If Donald Trump’s general election opponent can be tagged with labels like “socialist” and “communist,” this indecent president will cruise to a second term.
That would be the kiss of death, because for me, Priority Number 11 in next year’s election is to reverse the reprehensible record of this president. But Priorities 1-10 are to select someone who can beat him, then roll out the recovery.
Senator Sanders, and other candidates whose place on the political spectrum can earn them damning labels, however unfair, can explain their leanings any way they like. But millions of Americans, probably most, won’t hear them. Instead, aided by the opposition’s propaganda machine, they’ll hear socialism. And communism. And vote for Trump.
I’d like to live in a world with universal health care and child care and college education and gun control and banking regulations and reasonable restraints on environmental decay and all the rest. But no matter how righteous some candidates’ proposals are, if they also issue calls (to quote Elizabeth Warren) to “break up Big Ag, Big Banks, Big Tech” and the like, they’ll play right into Donald Trump’s hands because they’ll be painted as socialists and communists. Maybe they’d win the battle, but they’d lose the war.