Remember the “libertarian moment?” Not so long ago, commentariat from Reason magazine to the opinion pages of The New York Times noted a resurgence of libertarian ideas, driven by economic and technological fragmentation of power, and by the rise of a new generation of libertarian candidates such as the Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
Yet the “libertarian moment” has not ushered in a new golden age of free-market thinking and innovative market-based policies. The Tea Party movement, of which the “libertarian moment” now seems an epiphenomenon, radicalized the Republican base into demanding ever-more extreme measures only to create a zombie—Donald Trump—whom nobody could control.
The bourgeoning “democratic socialism” on the Left carries echoes of the Tea Party movement. Both may seem refreshing after decades of groupthink and complacency in the political center. But neither is offering genuinely new ideas or a coherent governing strategy.
The new radicalism on the Left should not be greeted with panic, at least not yet. For better and for worse, the term “socialism,” as championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, seems to have returned to U.S. political vocabulary in sanitized form, stripped of the authoritarianism inherent in the socialist experience of large parts of the world, including Eastern Europe and Latin America. “Democratic socialists” are not planning to seize the means of production, build a gulag system, or replicate Venezuela’s catastrophic price controls. Many of their practical proposals—from corporate co-determination to a Federal jobs guarantee to single-payer healthcare—would hardly raise an eyebrow in Europe.
If the emerging movement is not a mortal threat to America’s free enterprise system, neither is it a source of particularly innovative policy ideas. At home, the most intriguing among their recent proposals is the idea of co-determination, outlined by Senator Elizabeth Warren (who, in fairness, does not identify as a “democratic socialist”). Co-determination consists of mandating workers’ representation on executive boards of companies of a certain size—Warren suggests 40 percent of worker-chosen directors for all companies with revenue above $1 billion.
Co-determination seems to work just fine in countries such as Germany, Denmark, or Sweden. If it appears to be a viable model for established, middle-of-the-pack corporations—the VWs and Siemens AG of the world—it is hardly a recipe for innovation at the technological frontier of America’s leading firms, which rely on a much greater degree of corporate risk-taking than workers on an executive board would likely allow.
Nor is it obvious how co-determination would solve the underlying problems that Warren is concerned about—especially low wage growth and labor’s falling share of income—since those are driven by other factors, including sluggish productivity growth and rising costs of living in high-productivity cities.
The excitement about co-determination goes hand in hand with the faith that “democratic socialists” place in increased unionization, which has traditionally been much lower in the United States than in Europe. But unionization seems past its heyday across major industrialized economies on both sides of the Atlantic, including in Nordic countries. Membership remains above 50 percent only in countries where unions play a role in disbursing unemployment benefits (the “Ghent System”) and even there it has come under increased pressure.
What are the other innovative ideas of “democratic socialists”? Instead of strengthening the existing social safety net and expanding its reach among low-income workers, Senator Bernie Sanders is keen to tax large corporations, such as Amazon, to reimburse the government for providing public assistance to its employees—effectively increasing the costs of employing low-earners. As my AEI colleague Angela Rachidi points out, the idea is based on faulty economic logic: “For the argument that safety net programs ‘subsidize’ employers to ring true, wages would be higher in their absence, something I doubt proponents believe.”
Other “new” ideas involve tuition-free college education, single-payer healthcare, and the notion of a Federal jobs guarantee. The latter has been floating around post-Keynesian circles since the end of the Second World War, while the first two have been a longstanding staple of Democratic policy debates for decades.
Of course, all such proposals can be debated on their merits. This Eastern European author is not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of a single-payer healthcare system. But such proposals would require dramatic tax hikes in order to be fiscally sustainable. Introducing a VAT, raising the tax rate on the highest earners, or ending America’s military involvement overseas (“unlimited war,” as Ocasio-Cortez put it) is not going to cut it. Whether or not one believes that America should look more like the Nordic countries in important respects, increasing the tax burden is going to be an unpopular political proposition in the United States.
If at home “democratic socialists” offer ideas that are impractical but hardly novel, it is in foreign policy that they promise a truly radical and disruptive departure from the status quo. That may seem paradoxical, since the movement is built around a domestic political agenda, but it makes sense if one believes that the country’s military commitments have on balance been detrimental to ordinary Americans.
What results is an intellectual convergence of the Intercept Left and of the Breitbart Right on foreign policy. Illustrated by articles on how “progressives can engage Russia,” which repeat the Kremlin’s tired talking points, and by Glenn Greenwald’s appearances on The Tucker Carlson Show, this convergence has been underway for a long time.
In 1997, Senator Bernie Sanders attacked NATO’s expansion to the East, claiming that “it [was] not the time to continue wasting tens of billions of dollars helping to defend Europe” and asking why the United States was “militarily provoking Russia.” The 2016 Green Party candidate for President, Jill Stein, who sat at an RT gala in Moscow with Vladimir Putin and former Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, justified Russian aggression because “NATO has been surrounding Russia with missiles, nuclear weapons, and troops.”
To be sure, “democratic socialists” deserve a fair hearing both on matters of domestic and foreign policy. Particularly when it comes to the latter, at a time when voters have lost their trust in the traditional movers and shakers of U.S. foreign policy, it is important to reckon with the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to have a conversation about burden-sharing within NATO and about Europe’s role in the world.
Yet one should be under no illusion about how such debates are likely to play out within the confines of a democratic politics that is increasingly animated by radicalism. Politics is not a seminar-room environment where policy ideas are discussed on their substantive merits. A conversation about foreign policy initiated by “democratic socialists” will inevitably follow lines similar to conversations initiated by the political Right about the size of government and the debt burden. Instead of substance and a compromise-based, pragmatic way forward, we will see a flurry of emotions and frantic radicalism while the underlying problem of fiscal sustainability lingers unabated.
One key reason is that politics is “not about policy,” as Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, put it a decade ago. Instead it is about collective identities, status competition, and elevating one group at the expense of others. For good or ill, policies come later, as political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels argue, almost as an afterthought.
Today, political debates are unmoored and unpredictable. Two years after Donald Trump rode to victory on a wave of protectionist sentiments, record numbers of Americans embrace free trade. The Democrats, meanwhile, have become hawkish on Russia, while 40 percent of Republican voters see the Kremlin as an ally or friend of the United States. In recent insightful pieces, Tyler Cowen and Shadi Hamid offer similar messages: The Overton window has not merely shifted, it has expanded to include extreme positions on a number of policy issues.
The newfound radicalism and ideological somersaults do not mean that politics has suddenly become about big and exciting ideas—indeed, it is hard to see any right now that could pass serious intellectual scrutiny. More plausibly, a change in collective identities across Western countries is underway, as described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, among many others, and the political center has been hopelessly behind the curve in understanding it. The result so far? A de-facto demise of Europe’s center-Left and the entrenchment of the hardline anti-establishment Right on both sides of the Atlantic.
The underlying dynamics are only going to accelerate, whether they concern urbanization, education, or the racial make-up of advanced democracies. Between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of 25-34 year olds in OECD countries who’ve completed tertiary education went up from 26 percent to 43 percent—an extraordinary social change for such a short period. “But by dramatically increasing numbers going to university, we also made it more significant to not have shared in this national narrative. Political consequences are clear,” tweeted the political scientist Sophie Gaston.
“Democratic socialism” is not a way out of the current impasse. Together with an increasingly intolerant identity politics—which also aggravates bigotry on the Right —a left-wing policy outlook detached from reality will add to a flammable mix of radicalism whose one logical consequence is the emergence of a zombie, Trump-like figure on the Democratic Left. And if you think that is farfetched, I’ve got two words for you: Jeremy Corbyn.
Whether one likes it or not, all the cards are on the table. If history teaches us anything, it is that resurgent political radicalism is hardly a reason for intellectual excitement about big and bold ideas. Rather, it is a reliable sign of serious trouble ahead.