Commentary

Haviland Smith: Democratic socialism and the coming election

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Haviland Smith, who is a retired CIA station chief who focused primarily on the Soviet target in East and West Europe and the Middle East. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant in the CIA director’s office.

The coming election seems to be all about defeating or re-electing President Donald Trump. In that context, America is currently mired in a process that reflects the deep fissures in our society. On the conservative side we have Trump, supported by congressional Republicans who seem to be solely interested in maintaining power at any price, and a base that feels it has been disenfranchised by the post-war years of moderation under both Democratic and Republican administrations. On the more progressive side we have Bernie Sanders, supported by a diverse group of young Americans and Democrats, coupled with those who feel they are not now being fairly treated by Washington. That would include non-white Americans as well as those who are not making it under current conditions. Their immediate, stated goal is to defeat Trump and if that is true, these Americans might better consider moderation.

The fact that American youth is far more progressive than past generations may not be sufficient to materially influence the outcome of the election process in Sanders’ favor, but it certainly is a prediction of our world to come.  Unlike past generations, this one is not married to the baby boomer/GenX conviction that anything that smacks of socialism is an unacceptable curse that will ultimately lead to communism. They look at democratic socialism and wonder if it has anything positive to offer that will not threaten their democratic freedoms and is consistent with their beliefs and goals. Some of the issues that grab these progressive Americans include health care, education costs, income disparity, climate change, immigration, the minimum wage and gun policy. At this moment, any one of these issues will provoke conflict between the right and the left. Yet none of them will be resolved. 

It seems likely that, in the long run, these young people will have a major say in the evolution of our country. It seems equally likely that they will not heavily affect the coming election, primarily because so many Americans occupy the middle ground and view both the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-progressives with varying levels of concern and distrust.  

Clearly, on the political side the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the individual American under democracy are pretty well set. It’s when we get to the economic side that all hell breaks loose. Capitalism, as it is practiced here, simply does not hack it with much of the far and moderate left any more than “socialism” is acceptable to the conservatives.

If you can get past the hysterical McCarthy era and look around, democratic socialism has enough to offer that it might be more acceptable to you than socialism. If you have served in the U.S. military, socialized medicine as practiced by the U.S. military and financial support for education as reflected in the GI Bill have been a positive part of your life and both are based on federal involvement and control. If you look at the world today, you will see that over two dozen countries operate comfortably and fairly under democratic socialism. Most of the items that bother the Gen Y and Z generations about American capitalism are handled in a far different way under democratic socialism, which focuses on providing basic needs such as health care, quality of life, and education to all people.  Unlike the socialist model, all of this is achieved through democratic means, not through authoritarian mandate.

Given current American demographic realities, it is probably safe to say that in the future we will adopt some of the policies advocated now by social democrats. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not this country is politically and philosophically ready to accept such changes right now. If you believe that a majority of Americans believe in and would vote for social democracy, then you clearly need to support the left wing of the Democratic party and Bernie Sanders. It is interesting to note here that Trump and the Republican Party are supporting Sanders in every way they legally can – clearly because they believe that he would be the easiest opponent for Trump to defeat in the coming presidential election.

Anyone who believes the Republicans are right, but does not share their goals, and at the same time believes it is too early to embrace any and all aspects of democratic socialism, might better find a moderate to favor with his or her vote. 

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