Bernie Sanders has much to answer for. If he had called himself a social democrat as opposed to a democratic socialist at the start of his first White House bid in 2015, US politics might have taken a different turn. But he has made the word socialist common currency. Between a fifth and a third of Americans tell pollsters they embrace the label depending on how the question is posed. That is similar to the range of Donald Trump’s core support base. The “exhausted majority” who dislike both camps might want to hibernate for the next couple of years. The two sides are defining the 2020 election.
Not many American socialists, however, know what they are claiming to be. Very few believe the US government should take ownership of the means of production. Nor do they wish to embark on class warfare. What they do want — along with most Americans, including many Trump voters — is a more progressive tax system, universal healthcare, a sharp reduction in student college debt and modern infrastructure. In other words, they are moderate social democrats.
“Washington should expropriate the commanding heights of the economy,” says almost no American.
Even so, their preferences are still radical by the traditions of US politics. “Medicare for all” — extending retirees’ health benefits to everyone under 65 — is a logical goal. But it would cost about $3tn a year. That is about three-quarters of Washington’s existing budget. Most European social democracies built their systems in the wake of the second world war. They wanted to prevent a repeat of the conditions that spawned fascism. It is one thing to remake the world when you are sitting in European rubble. It is another to do so in American peacetime.
Most Americans also want higher taxes on the wealthy.
This is also fair. The top 1 per cent have seen their incomes multiply while most of the rest of the country has been treading water. A tax rate of 70 per cent on incomes above $10m would not deter American innovation. Nor would a wealth tax on those worth more than $50m. The problem is that such steps would raise too little to cover what Americans want. Everyone would have to pay more in some form or other. Some of it could be raised by a carbon levy. A financial transaction tax and equal treatment of capital gains would raise more. A federal consumption tax would also help. Most of the rest would have to come from higher income taxes on the bottom 99 per cent.
Are Americans ready to pay for what they say they want? The only way to find out is to give them the choice. But here is the rub — even if Democrats chose a centrist, Mr Trump would still label that person a socialist.
He has already framed next year’s election as battle between “freedom” and a “socialist nightmare”. His imagery comes from Venezuela. In practice, that immiserated country has nothing in common with the Scandinavian dream of America’s socialists. But Mr Trump will drive it home all the same. His allies at Fox News, which, as the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer points out, is the closest America has come to having a state broadcaster, is heavily on message. Whichever Democrat takes the nomination next year will have to share a screen with Nicolás Maduro.
Which brings us back to Mr Sanders. Unless, or until, Joe Biden, the former vice-president, enters the race, the Democratic socialist remains the frontrunner for his party’s nomination. If that persists it would make Mr Trump’s job much easier. Kamala Harris, the other leading contender, is taking much of her cue from Mr Sanders. She supports Medicare for all and has come close to endorsing a universal basic income, which is easily caricatured as “money for nothing”.
A sharper approach would be to champion capitalism for ordinary people. Unlike social democracy, “little guy” capitalism has a deep American pedigree. It attacks monopoly and corporate welfare — and links competition to fairness, rather than presenting them as antagonistic. It would also put Mr Trump’s billionaires’ patronage system in the dock.
America’s political inclination is to distribute power rather than wealth. In reality, Mr Trump’s stance on Venezuela is an exception to his instinct, which is to envy the power authoritarians have.