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Socialism and the Democracy Deficit

The quest for radical equality in the American grain

What is Democratic Socialism? I read considerable talk about “the democratic” as applying to the process of getting socialism; damn little about it as an adjective applying to socialism when you get it.

John Dewey to James T. Farrell, 8 November, 1948

Socialism, the political economy that for a century dared not speak its name in American domestic politics, is enjoying a return to prominence it hasn’t experienced since the early twentieth century. On the one hand, self-identified “democratic socialists” such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have won considerable public approval and support, particularly from younger people. On the other hand, nervous defenders of plutocracy like President Trump have gone out of their way to renew warnings of a socialist threat to American freedom not heard much since the end of the Cold War. “America will never be a socialist country,” Trump vowed during this year’s State of the Union address, as though the new Democratic House majority were about to make Kim Jong Un the honorary chair of the Democratic National Committee. Right-wing pundits from Sean Hannity to Dinesh D’Souza issued their own alarmist variations on the theme, which will only continue to metastasize on the right as the unpopular incumbent president gears up for the 2020 general election.

Beneath all the pundit-driven sound and fury here, it’s possible to discern a much older and far more serious debate, concerning just what kind of society, and political economy, should sustain the American democratic republic. In this long-running controversy, strictly economic considerations have been a dependent variable; its lead partisans and theorists have instead put political democracy and egalitarian citizenship first and asked what sort of economy best advances and supports these public virtues.

Given the centrality of these ideals in the American political tradition, it may be that the fate of socialism in our politics will depend now, as it has before, on how well socialists fare in convincing Americans of their commitment to them. Or, to state it a bit differently, contemporary democratic socialists will likely succeed in direct proportion to their ability to persuade their fellow Americans that “democratic socialism” is not an oxymoron, and that it means, as Ocasio-Cortez has said, “putting democracy and society first.”

The ink had barely dried on the U.S. Constitution before Americans began to address the question of the sort of political economy that the decidedly democratized republic they had launched required if it was securely to prosper. This history provides an essential backdrop to any consideration of the prospects of an American socialism today. As the eye-opening work of legal historians Joseph Fishkin, Ganesh Sitaraman, and especially William Forbath has established, the “basic foundation” upon which the American constitutional order was built was, as Sitaraman puts it, “the prerequisite of relative economic equality.” This was an essential conviction of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the many proponents in a “distributive tradition” of constitutional law and politics who followed them in the nineteenth century and beyond into the twentieth century. A partial honor roll of others aligned with this project would include Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Henry George, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Louis Brandeis, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Rawls.

This tradition has been often strongly inflected with the centuries-old civic republican understanding of liberty as “non-domination,” independence, or autonomy—that is, freedom from the exercise, actual or potential, of arbitrary or uncontrolled power by one person over another. The civic republican commitment to egalitarian politics is grounded in the firm belief that all citizens should have equal access to political institutions that empower them to contest threats to their liberty by exercising control over those who would dominate them. The audacity of the American republican experiment lies in its democratization of full citizenship—i.e., its gradual (if often bitterly fought) extension of the full rights of citizenship necessary for such self-protection to more and more of those who live within its borders. The franchise is, of course, among the most important of these rights, and regular elections among the most significant of these institutions, but few if any republicans contend that, however necessary, voting and elections are a sufficient safeguard of liberty.

For those who held to this understanding of liberty, an economy distinguished by a substantial inequality of wealth was a structure of likely domination that imperiled democracy. Forbath has succinctly summarized the core argument of this tradition. “Its gist is simple: Gross economic inequality produces gross political inequality. You can’t have a constitutional republic, or what the Framers called a ‘republican form of government,’ and certainly not a constitutional democracy, in the context of gross material inequality among citizens, for three reasons: It produces an oligarchy in which the wealthy rule; it destroys the material independence and security that citizens must have in order to think and act on their own behalf and participate on a roughly equal footing in the polity and society; and it impedes access to basic goods that are the foundation of dignity and standing in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the community.” Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis purportedly summed things up even more succinctly: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

For much of the nineteenth century, American democrats believed that the best way of suppressing oligarchy and fostering independent citizens was to rely on the widespread distribution of productive capital in a simple market society dominated by petty-proprietors—small farmers and artisans. This was the impulse behind Jefferson’s hope that the United States would long remain a country made up principally of yeoman farmers, and it animated Andrew Jackson’s war on the “monied aristocracy” he saw at work in the Second Bank of the United States.

Citizen socialist: Eugene V. Debs addresses a crowd in Chicago in 1922.New York Daily Archives/Getty

The growth of wage labor in the early nineteenth century posed a challenge to this way of thinking, since working under the control of another seemed on the face of it to be a threat to the independence that republican citizenship required. But many joined Lincoln in arguing that in America wage labor might assume a temporary place in the life cycle of a worker; thanks to the country’s great endowment of land, and its burgeoning national market, the model trajectory of economic striving involved formerly dependent wage earners entering the ranks of independent petty-proprietors. “The man who labored for another last year,” Lincoln insisted, “this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”

To be sure, until the Civil War, republican liberty was reserved to white, male citizens. But over time, it has been extended by American democrats both formally and substantively—though in this latter case, on a distinctly more halting basis. During Reconstruction, radical Republicans sought to provide full citizenship to black freedmen via the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, though proposals to provide them with “forty acres and a mule” quickly sputtered to a halt. During what C. Vann Woodward called the “Second Reconstruction,” the civil rights movement refought the battle for full African American citizenship and scored signal successes, though racism has unto our own day remained a powerful obstacle to full republican liberty for black citizens. Women, despite the best efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others, were not formally welcomed into the American republican fold until the 1920s, and feminists have struggled ever since to ensure women a substantively full citizenship.

Many Americans continued to rage against oligarchy and its threat to democracy after the Civil War. As one Populist described it, “the inequalities that characterize our rich and poor” were an affront to “the ideas that the founders of this Republic saw when they wrote that ‘All men are created equal.’” An emerging oligarchy of powerful corporations posed a threat to the political equality that was the “great basic idea of our laws, the very corner-stone of the republican structure.”

It became apparent in the late nineteenth century that, as was the case in other industrializing countries, American workers (including a growing white-collar class) would remain wage laborers for the whole of their lives. This development posed a dilemma for republican democrats because, as labor reformer George McNeill expressed it, “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” But rather than succumb to political fatalism or despair, radical democrats sought inventive ways—cooperatives and other modes of workers’ control of production, if seldom state socialism—to try to guarantee, as Fishkin and Forbath say, that “being a wage earner did not have to mean dependency or servitude, without authority at work and without the material security, respect, and freedom to be a democratic citizen. It all depended on how we set up our political economy.” Advancing the same view in his Progressive Democracy (1914), The New Republic founding editor Herbert Croly called for “industrial self-governing democracy” for American workers. The aim, he said, must be one of figuring out a way for all American workers to “obtain an amount or a degree of economic independence analogous to that upon which the pioneer democrat could count.”

Many American socialists of the turn of the twentieth century fit into a radically democratic, republican framework. As Nick Salvatore has argued, the socialism of the most revered leader of American socialists at the time, Eugene V. Debs, can be embedded within it. Salvatore aptly titled his authoritative 1982 biography Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, for Debs was a socialist who put democratic citizenship and republican liberty first.

Calls for a political economy that would do a better job of protecting egalitarian citizenship from oligarchy continued to echo through the New Deal. They figured prominently in Franklin Roosevelt’s most belligerent attacks on the “economic royalists” who opposed him. But after World War II, as Fishkin and Forbath lament, the argument for self-rule on the distributionist constitutional model lost steam. The immediate post-World War II decades witnessed what some economists have termed the “great compression”—a key interval in which the nation’s distribution of income and wealth became more equal. The unusually equitable economic growth in this period led many to conclude prematurely that the “mixed economy” of corporate capitalism, strong labor unions, Keynesian macro-management of markets by the government, and a modest welfare state had put the threat of oligarchy on ice. Thanks in no small part to this complacent benediction of the postwar status quo as the best of all possible mixed-economy worlds, the distributive tradition lost its grip on American liberalism. Considerable poverty remained, of course, but addressing it, Lyndon Johnson and other liberal Democrats argued, was something of a mopping-up operation.

In reality, however, as the great compression unwound in the three decades or so after the Second World War, the signs of the oligarchic threat to egalitarian citizenship became more alarming than they had been at any time since the Gilded Age and Progressive era. Since the 1970s, inequities in the distribution of wealth have increased dramatically amid the consolidation of a decidedly anti-distributionist conservatism. The top 0.1 percent of Americans held 20 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2016 (up from 7 percent in 1979) and owned as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Evidence suggests that the threat that the wealthy pose to what Rawls termed the “fair value of political liberty” has become extraordinary. On the other hand, as popular discontent with inequality grows, a nascent, resistant left populism has an opportunity to breathe new life into the distributive tradition and take on this threat.

A central organizing opportunity for this incipient movement is, for socialists and nonsocialists alike, what some investigators have called the “democratic deficit” in our political system—a gap that’s huge and growing. Careful, dispassionate political scientists such as Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens, and Benjamin Page have compellingly established that the preferences of the majority of Americans have virtually no independent impact on the making of public policy in this country. “The central point that emerges from our research,” Gilens and Page reported in 2014, “is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Ordinary citizens find their preferences realized in policy only when they happen to coincide with those of wealthy Americans and corporate lobbyists.

On a much wider array of crucial issues—including national health care, Social Security, aid to the unemployed, financial regulation, taxes, environmental protection, education spending—there’s been a pronounced divergence of interests between the elite orchestrators of legislative consent and the public at large. “In the United States,” these political scientists conclude, “our findings indicate the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” This is what a structure of domination looks like.

The disproportionate influence of our contemporary “monied aristocracy” relies significantly on the power of money to shape electoral politics. Yet efforts to curb this power have met with formidable resistance from the Supreme Court. In the important cases of Buckley v. Valeo (1976), Citizens United (2010), Arizona Free Enterprise (2011), and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the court has sided with big money and refused to consider its ill effects on political equality, ruling instead in favor of the moneyed free speech rights not just of wealthy individuals but of corporate “persons.”

As Fishkin and Forbath have noted, these decisions are part of a broader effort by a powerful conservative movement in jurisprudence to cement a libertarian capitalist rather than a distributive republican interpretation of the Constitution. Many of the current Supreme Court justices as well as jurists in the federal courts generally look longingly at the pre-New Deal court of the Lochner era, which set itself squarely in opposition to the distributive tradition and was more than willing to promote large-scale economic inequality, whatever its political effects might prove to be. Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in his famous Lochner dissent, charged the court majority with attempting to “enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” Substitute archlibertarian Milton Friedman for Herbert Spencer, and one could well say the same today. The impulse of liberal reformers is to try to reduce the democratic deficit by insulating American politics from undue control by wealthy elites. In their recent book, Democracy in America?, Page and Gilens lay out a rich menu of insulating proposals that include reforms of campaign finance (even within the undemocratic limits set by the current court), lobbying, voting requirements and procedures, congressional rules, and redistricting. Acknowledging the blockade thrown up by the current court, they hopefully side with the arguments of the distributive constitutional tradition and pray for a change of judicial heart. But, as they admit, initiating such reforms in the face of the oligarchic power that infuses American political institutions and that would oppose them would be extremely difficult—even supposing the vigorous “social movement for democracy” that they call for. And, if successful, such reforms still would be hard to stabilize amid the oligarchy’s inevitable effort to weaken or overturn them. 

Rather than trying to quarantine American politics from the consequences of economic inequality by means of campaign finance regulation and other political reforms, a more effective and stable response to the democratic deficit, one consistent with the distributive tradition, would be to address its cause. Instead of shielding the remnants of democracy and republican liberty from further trespasses at the hands of the wealthy, democrats should attack the source of their power—to deprive them of their disproportionate wealth and prevent its re-accumulation. At the same time, principled democrats should ensure that all citizens have the material independence and security that political equality and democracy require.

So the question that democrats should ask of American socialists is whether socialism is the only or the best way to attack oligarchy and address the crisis of republican liberty that we are facing. What do they mean by “democratic” socialism, and how does the socialism they foresee comport with republican liberty? And even if it does prove complementary with the material demands of democracy, is it the only or the best way to rescue our democratic republic from oligarchy?

Clearly, socialism would effectively address the domination of an oligarchy of wealth. It would do so by destroying it; socialism would not only deprive the capitalist class of its wealth and power but eliminate it entirely as an actor in the political economy. The sine qua non of socialism is the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. The question that a democrat puts to the socialist is: At what price? Does socialism merely substitute another form of domination, by a political oligarchy centered in the state, for that which it destroys in civil society?

Contemporary socialists recognize that this is a question they must answer, though they have often been slow to tell us exactly what socialism will look like when we get it. Reticence on this question, as socialist Sam Gindin has recently said, is no longer defensible. “Developing a more systematic consideration of socialism’s possible functioning, even if what we offer remains relatively general, incomplete, and even speculative, has today become a requirement for reviving a receptivity to achievable utopias and the willful action to achieve them.” 

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the principal organization of contemporary American socialists, to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs, has taken a weak stab at defining its achievable utopia. All too aware of the Soviet shadow that long subsumed modern socialist organizing in America, DSA leaders insist that democratic socialists do not stand for an authoritarian state in complete control of a command economy. Rather, they imagine an economy with markets and a measure of “democratic planning.” They defend civil liberties and “favor as much decentralization as possible.” Nonetheless, they do want to eliminate private ownership of the means of production—or at least of the “commanding heights” of the economy. DSA stands steadfastly for “social ownership” of capital—a plan that appears to mix some state ownership with the institution of workers’ cooperatives.

Among the things missing in this statement of vision, and elsewhere in the work of most democratic socialists in the United States, is any clear picture of what the socialist state will look like—and how presumably democratic politics will be carried out under conditions of social ownership. Even Gindin, whose sketch of a “realistic” socialist utopia is admirably full, says little about political liberty. The in DSA manifests itself almost entirely as a call for workplace democracy. As an older democratic socialist, Alec Nove, observed in The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983)—a book that should be dusted off for our times—there will be plenty of political conflict in a truly democratic socialist society, and it is incumbent on socialists to explain fully what political institutions and practices they imagine guiding the socialist future they hope to secure (democratically, I trust).

Arguably the leading organ of contemporary American socialism is Jacobin, a magazine “offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Perhaps one thing that those American socialists who claim to put democracy first could do is persuade its editors to change the name of their journal. It conjures up the guillotine. 

Bernie Sanders has been quite cagey about what he means by socialism. When pressed, he says that he favors a comparison of his vision with the Nordic near beer of what is commonly termed “social democracy” and that others have labeled “cuddly capitalism.” He has surely been a socialist long enough to know that socialists have consistently distinguished their vision from social democracy, though they acknowledge that the social-democratic project is an improvement by their lights upon neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps Sanders regards social democracy as a transitional stage on the way to a thoroughgoing American socialism. He seems reluctant to say, either way.

Since the late nineteenth century, the principal means of addressing the failure of laissez-faire capitalism to provide for the material needs of many members of modern industrial societies has been the welfare state. Insofar as the welfare state removes certain important goods and services—housing, health care, education, pensions, and so forth—from the unregulated play of private market forces and provides them to citizens free of charge or nearly so, it could be said to mix a measure of socialism with capitalism. This is the set of economic arrangements that falls under the catchall heading of social democracy. Every modern capitalist society has introduced a more-or-less substantial measure of social democracy into its economy. Some, like the Nordic states, are (despite some recent retreats) fairly robust social democracies. The United States is among the most anemic of contemporary social democracies. The immediate aim of Sanders and other contemporary American social democrats is to give the United States a substantial social democratic transfusion by enlarging its welfare state. Hence their current signature program: Medicare for All.

The principal shortcoming of social democracy, as socialists see it, is that it leaves the commanding heights of the means of production in private hands. The modifications of social democracy do little, by socialists’ lights, to challenge a capitalist class that counts on the ongoing ransacking of already weak welfare states like that of the United States to continue padding private-sector bottom lines and that rationalizes casualized, exploitive regimes of labor control. Robust social democracies have been built and sustained by the countervailing power of potent labor movements—a historical truth that doesn’t bode well for U.S. social democrats, given the decades-long retreat of America’s union movement from substantive social power.

For those nonsocialists who put political equality first and those socialists who do worry over it, this mobilization of capitalist oligarchy under social democratic auspices also remains a first-order threat to democracy—one all too prone to perpetuating a structure of domination, as any avid reader of Nordic detective fiction can tell you. In such Scandinavian social democracies, the bid to roll back oligarchic control has again relied on the insulating political power of organized labor. 

Political egalitarians contemplating social democracy might also raise a further concern about what John Rawls termed “reciprocity.” As Rawls explained, republican democracy requires that citizens regard one another as free and equal and as worthy of mutual respect. If social welfare is conceived—as it now largely is in the United States—as a matter of redistributing the income of those who have succeeded in the testing of market competition to those who have failed for one reason or another, then it will be all too easy to regard welfare recipients as state dependents or charity cases and not as fellow free and independent citizens. Some will regard them with compassion, others with contempt, but neither bespeaks a reciprocity of respect. 

Egalitarian democracy, socialist and nonsocialist alike, will no doubt require substantial social welfare provisions to ensure that all citizens may exercise their citizenship effectively, but it matters a great deal how such benefits are understood—and that they are available universally. As Rawls said, the point of social-democratic provisions like universal health care is “to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality.” Health care, quality education, a minimum income, and other such basic goods are among what some in the distributional tradition have termed the “initial endowments” essential to full membership for all citizens in a democratic polity. It would be nice if more American socialists and social democrats talked about such basic social provisions in these terms instead of simply as a way of securing the material well-being of the poor.

Is democratic socialism the only alternative on offer for those who would revitalize the distributional tradition? Or is there a plausible competitor more clearly in the lineage of the petty-bourgeois radicalism that has claimed the loyalties of most American warriors against an aristocracy of wealth from Jefferson forward? Is that sort of radicalism a dead letter? Or to put a face to the question: What should we make of Elizabeth Warren?

Rawls, for one, thought there was an alternative to democratic socialism worth considering. He termed it “property-owning democracy.” Theoretically—that is to say, among political theorists—the most interesting current debate over the political economy that is likeliest to promote what Rawls called the “fair value of political liberty” and “fair equality of opportunity” centers on disagreement between proponents of democratic socialism and property-owning democracy. The latter is a term as yet largely absent in popular American political discourse, yet its principles are not. They are integral to the thinking of most of the defenders of a middle-class, equal opportunity Constitution in the distributional tradition. And it’s no great stretch to see Warren as the candidate in the current presidential race who represents this tradition of petty-bourgeois radicalism and the impulses of property-owning democracy.

At the heart of property-owning democracy is the conviction that the best protection against oligarchy lies in a widespread dispersal of the ownership of the means of production. It focuses, in other words, on the distribution and redistribution of wealth. It embraces market competition for many purposes. It does not condemn private control of capital but rather proposes to distribute it widely, even universally. The principal means for securing and sustaining property-owning democracy are taxes on the wealthiest members of a society, especially wealth taxes—on assets and inheritance. One proponent of property-owning democracy, Thad Williamson, has devised a detailed program that would over 20 years tax away one-third of the wealth of the richest 1 percent of households and redistribute the resulting gains so as to provide every American household with a portfolio of $100,000 in assets divided between cash savings, homeownership, and stockholdings.

Warren has declared herself “a capitalist to the bone.” I’m not sure exactly what she means by this beyond a commitment to markets governed by free and fair competition. She is often labeled a “neo-Brandeisian”—an apt summation of intellectual influence in her case, to judge by her assaults on big banks and her proposals for aggressive antitrust actions against digital oligarchs. She is also, as I write, the one candidate to call for a wealth tax on the ultrarich, which suggests she might be open to the radical neo-Brandeisian vision of property-owning democracy. To be sure, Warren has not committed herself to the central plank of this radical tradition—the full redistribution of the wealth secured by such a tax. (She would spend the money on social programs such as universal childcare, student loan debt relief, health care, and the Green New Deal.) But it would not be surprising if she were to consider that proposition. It is fully in accord with her goals of “rebuilding the middle class” and launching “big, structural changes to put economic power back in the hands of the American people.”

Perhaps because so much of the thinking of the theorists of property-owning democracy derives from Rawls, they are just as inclined as he was to put the fair value of political liberty first before questions of distributional justice. There are socialists influenced by Rawls, like William Edmundson, who do the same, but they are few and far between. For advocates of property-owning democracy, political democracy is not merely a consideration but a prior and necessary consideration in the realization of their “achievable utopias.” Republican liberty is not only compatible with property-owning democracy; it is one of its principal guiding aims.

The opposition to property-owning democracy in America would be no less fierce than the right’s present campaign to demonize democratic socialism. Indeed, it would no doubt be termed “socialist” by the framers of conservative messaging, who regard any redistributionist project as such. Nonetheless, a movement for property-owning democracy could count on its accord with some widespread public attitudes: Polls have repeatedly shown large majorities in favor of substantive equal opportunity and the principle of equal political liberty and in favor of taxing the very wealthy to provide them. As Williamson says, “almost no one in American public life defends explicitly the view that we ought to have a social system characterized by sharp class distinctions in power and resources, and that one’s class position ought to be primarily a function of who your parents are or were” or the proposition that “large corporations ought to have more political influence than ordinary citizens, or that the views of persons with greater income and wealth should have more sway over political outcomes than the views of the less well endowed.”

Rawls himself was agnostic on the choice between democratic socialism and property-owning democracy as the best route to instating a substantive vision of justice and fairness. Yet he suggested wisely that a people in pursuit of a just political economy should take account of their history and culture in deciding between the two. In this respect, property-owning democracy has a clear edge. It can appeal to values deeply embedded in American culture: individual self-reliance and independence, in particular. It aims in good republican fashion, as Williamson puts it, for “a society in which economic security and the freedom to make truly independent choices about how one will live one’s life would be near-universal, not the domain of a small minority.” It need not call Marx, or even Debs, to testify on its behalf. It can bring Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Jackson, Lincoln, George, Croly, Brandeis, Franklin Roosevelt, Rawls, and others in the petty-bourgeois radical tradition to the bar.

The theoretical debates between democratic socialists and proponents of property-owning democracy, though sometimes intense, have tended toward hybrid resolutions—political economies mixing public and private ownership of productive property. For example, John Roemer has urged fellow socialists not to make a fetish of social ownership of the means of production and proposed what he calls “coupon socialism,” in which citizens are supplied with equal non-alienable shares in large enterprises, a plan that might easily be incorporated into property-owning democracy. At the same time, advocates of property-owning democracy have said that their vision might readily enclose worker-owned and -managed cooperatives or require public ownership of financial capital. And both socialists and property-owning democrats uphold universal provision of public goods such as health care and quality education, understood as a right of citizenship. I suspect the practical internal politics of a majoritarian left movement would track these theoretical debates as it moved forward.

Comparing Warren and Sanders, Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude advises American radicals that “you can have Brandeis or you can have Debs.” My guess is that if things go well over the next generation, they will want something of both. But if they hope to be successful, there is every good reason for them to begin with Brandeis.