Saturday, January 19, 2013


Jim Harbison’s recent column complains about what its title asserts, “Democrats now publicly and openly socialists” (10 Jan).  Harbison claims thatthe liberal Pew Research [sic] recently validated this description in a recent survey based on current Democrat political ideology, policies, and self-identification.”  Two points about this claim deserve brief mention.  First, the Pew Research Center (PRC) is a non-partisan, not a liberal, organization.  Harbison uses the word “liberal” to suggest a self-confession by the left of its identification and allegiance.  Second, as he omits the full name of the organization, so he omits the title of the report.  He intends the omission to hinder an assessment of the truth or falsity of his representations of an unnamed report.  (Such spurious claims of supporting reports have become a standard conservative Republican/Tea Party ruse to give bogus authority to their political fictions.)

I tried to find a PRC survey supporting Harbison’s claim but, like the many letters-to-the-editor writers, found no such survey, no such description of Democrats as socialists, no such validation of them as socialists.  Many PRC reports analyze American attitudes, beliefs, and positions by various parameters, including differences between Democrats and Republicans.  One report analyzes responses, whether favorable or not, to the words “capitalism” and “socialism” across various parameters—not the same as associating the terms with parties, policies, or political philosophies.  Harbison’s claim is a fraudulent one based on his twisted interpretations to serve his ideology.

Despite its dishonesty, Harbison’s column usefully prompts three questions.  First but least is what difference does it make to label Democrats “socialists.”  So far as I can tell, not much.  Policies, whether Democratic or Republican, are good or bad because of their positive or negative effects, not because of their labeling.  Harbison is arguing, not the presumably adverse effects of Democratic policies, but the repugnance which some people feel for anything which can be smeared with pejorative labels.  Labels are powerful ways to honor or discredit ideas or individuals, but they are not arguments.  His column amounts to a wordy and worthless exercise in name-calling.

The second question is what is the meaning of “socialism.”  The traditional answer is a form of government which owns and operates major productive and service industries.  Harbison’s definition has nothing to do with this definition; it has everything to do with the word “social,” something very different.  Harbison sees social policies, whether they address taxation, financial distributions (social safety net programs), health, education, environment, and more, as “socialist.”  His alternative is few or no policies or programs social in nature, and little or no government to implement them—which would move the country toward a plutocratic police state—an ironic outcome given wacko Republican and Tea Party blather and bluster about “tyrannical government.”

Third but most important, if Harbison were right about the country going socialist—I am going to assume his conclusion for the sake of argument—why after nearly a century and a half of success, is capitalism losing its appeal to increasing numbers of Americans?  If capitalism remains a worthy economic system, why does it no longer convince many Americans of its merits?  Instead of asking and addressing these crucial questions, Harbison relies on a partisan recital of complaints about the purported vices of socialism instead of arguments advancing the proven virtues of capitalism.  This rhetorical approach is not going to persuade anyone, only preach to his choir.

Friends of capitalism like Harbison are its worst enemies.  They forget that an economic system, as a component of a political system, especially a democracy, must provide more benefits than detriments to society as a whole.  Even in non-democratic states, the long-run stability of the political system requires some concessions to the population as a whole, in the distribution of benefits.  Thus, famously, the government of imperial Rome provided bread and circuses to its citizens and slaves.

In the historical context of the American political and economic system, the promise has been a fair share of society’s benefits and a decent life enabling a modicum of self-respect and comfort.  As long as that promise has appeared capable of fulfillment, people have accepted, even embraced, capitalism.  When depressions, recessions, or, ironically, recent Republican or conservative scares about social safety net programs have called the promise of capitalism into question, people become doubtful about its benefits, attitudes shift, and polls reflect their shift.

What Harbison’s partisan polemic shows is that efforts to protect increasingly concentrated wealth is blinding Republicans and conservatives to the perils of their present course.  The middle class increasingly sees a conflict between their promises of greater economic growth and more opportunity, and the realities of increasing economic inequality and social stratification.  Capitalism, by accelerating economic disparities and social rigidity, is reneging on its promises to the growing majority of Americans.

The paradox for those like Harbison is that his “socialist” programs are good for capitalism.  Instead of spending millions on candidates who will vote capitalists enough rope to hang themselves, Republicans and conservatives should be supporting “social” programs which secure capitalism from disaffection and revolt.  The alternative is to ensure a government advancing the interests of the few at the expense of the many, with the result being either government repression or populist revolution.  Unless popular discontent can be diverted and focused on scapegoats—Jews are the historically and culturally preferred candidates, but Muslims, “illegal immigrants,” or “welfare queens,” among others, might serve in their stead—rebellion will be launched, ironically, not against socialists, but against capitalists, because capitalists are creating fewer satisfied “capitalists” than disaffected “socialists.”

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