Labels are incredibly important in politics. They tell us whether President Trump is a passionate American patriot or a racist, xenophobe, and wannabe authoritarian. They tell us whether Hillary Clinton in 2016 was an inspiring role-model for women and champion for working people everywhere or an inauthentic, entitled grifter who exemplified all that's wrong with America's corrupt establishment.
Labels matter so much that politicians and parties typically fight hard to control which ones get affixed to them, with the broadly popular ones proudly affirmed and the toxic ones furiously denied.
I can't help but wonder, then, why Democratic activists today appear happy to take on the label of "socialist." Republicans have long thrown the epithet in the face of liberals in the hopes that it might stick. While it's true that some polls have shown Democrats warming to the term, broader polling results of the country as a whole show that, even today, 58 percent have a negative view of socialism, with only 38 percent taking a positive view.
What gives? Why are Democrats eagerly embracing a label that a solid majority of voters dislike?
The answer, I think, is that the left wing of the party is antsy, eager to affirm something, anything to the left of the centrist-liberal consensus of the past few decades. These Democrats are fed up with the consequences of deferring to markets in every domain of our public life (and even in many aspects of our private lives) and long for something different — a more radical critique than what can be found in white papers published by the Center for American Progress and other center-left establishments think tanks. And "socialism" is standing in for this something.
It would be one thing if the term were accurate and precise. Then perhaps it would make sense for Democrats to attempt the hard work of trying to persuade the electorate to change its negative views of the socialist idea. But it doesn't make sense because the term is neither accurate nor precise. It's a foggy, unfocused concept that tells voters very little about what its exponents believe in or want to achieve. That makes its political deployment doubly misguided.
My favorite definition of socialism, because it so well captures the dreamy, circular, and largely contentless character of the way it is usually invoked, comes from Irving Howe, the New York intellectual, founder of Dissent magazine, and a life-long figure on the social-democratic left. Howe famously defined socialism as "the name of our desire," with the "our" referring to highly literate, non-Stalinist leftists like himself. Socialism is what people like Howe desired. But what was that exactly? Something better than capitalism and communism. Something between them, presumably. Yet this desire apparently had no concrete object in the world. It remained a mere idea.
The definition fits what many on the left seem to be advocating now. It's certainly not capitalism as it currently manifests itself in the United States. And don't even think of suggesting that it resembles the hyperinflationary, blacked-out mess in Venezuela. But neither is it anything close to what we got from neoliberal shills like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
But then what is it that socialists want? To judge by the policy positions many of them favor, it's something vaguely resembling … Canada. Or Denmark. Or maybe France.
There's just one problem: The political and economic arrangements that prevail in Canada, Denmark, and France aren't different in kind from those one finds in the United States. All of these countries permit private property. All of them have capitalist economies. All of them have robust welfare states combined with largely free markets. All of them have democratic elections and representative institutions.
What makes Canada, Denmark, and France appealing? The willingness of a solid majority of their citizens to vote for parties and politicians that favor government spending on social services, environmental regulations, infrastructure projects, and other programs that seek to advance the common good.
It's true that the political cultures of these countries are more inclined to support what contemporary Americans often sneeringly call "big government." But it wasn't always that way in this country. Indeed, during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, public opinion strongly favored the gargantuan public programs of the New Deal and cheered on the president's vision of the country securing "Four Freedoms" for every American — freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
But of course none of that was socialist. Indeed, FDR proposed his agenda explicitly to head off the spread of socialism in the United States — by which he and his fellow Democrats meant the socialism of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. What FDR advocated was very different than that: a modified, regulated, "mixed" version of democratic capitalism. In other words: modern liberalism.
Which is exactly what Democrats today aim for. None of the candidates currently running for president, not even self-described "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders, want to overthrow the American political and economic system and replace them with an alternative. On the contrary, they want to use America's institutions to address our country's many long-neglected problems. Doing so will require a greater role for government than Americans are used to after four decades of hearing center-right and center-left variations on the Reaganite mantra that government is the source of — not the solution to — our difficulties. That would be a big change. But it wouldn't involve a transformation of the United States into a socialist country (whatever that is).
The left wing of the Democratic Party wants big change. And there's no denying that "We want socialism!" sounds sexier than "We want to be more like Canada!" But there's still a lot to be said for truth in advertising — especially when the name of your desire polls badly.
Democrats need to run as what they are. They are liberals, progressives. They are not socialists. And it's a good thing, too.