WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — October 22, 2019 — One casualty of the erosion of the language of politics are the fulsome attacks on Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a “socialist.”
It first came from Wall Street billionaires and their minions predicting “President Warren declares ‘socialism now, socialism tomorrow, socialism forever.'” A Republican Congressman calls her a “national socialist,” hinting at a confluence of Nazis and communists. The always reliable Fox News chimed in “The seeds of socialism have already been planted.” Everybody’s piling on.
Gimme a break. You can certainly question some or all of her many plans. They’re expensive and she’s been a little shaky on how to pay for them, but they are far from socialism. She’s a mainstream New Deal Democrat who’s taking the social safety net, anti-trust doctrine, and progressive tax policies and applying them hard to today’s corporate giants and super-rich.
For those who need reminding, a socialist believes in public ownership of the means of production and distribution. You know, government banks, government car companies, government tech companies. I haven’t seen Warren embrace such a system.
If you listen carefully to her critics there’s a subtext worth noting. The real grievance is that the Warren agenda redistributes income by increasing the tax burden on the wealthy and using the money to provide health care or education or other benefits to middle income and poor folks. That critique is, if nothing else, accurate.
But that debate was settled decades ago. We have favored progressive taxation, where the rich pay higher tax rates, since Teddy Roosevelt. We have favored using such revenues for social programs since FDR started the social safety net and Lyndon Johnson created Medicare. What the right-wing attacks on Warren are really about is undoing the political foundation of the New Deal, undoing the federal government as a force for economic equity, and undoing the social compact that has governed America for over 80 years.
The reasons for the existing economic consensus go way beyond a bleeding heart concern for the less fortunate. History teaches us that societies that tolerate huge gaps in income distribution, or don’t provide the basic necessities of life, blow up. In other words, it’s in everyone’s interest, including the rich, that average folks have health care and a sound education.
The intense focus on Trump and his persona are currently obscuring the competition between economic models. Warren will be attacked as a socialist for a while. If she’s got the necessary political skills she will persuade the country that her economic vision improves the lives of most voters. She has to be able to persuade all kinds of voters, including Rust Belt white folks, that their economic self-interest will be protected. If she doesn’t have those skills she will be swept away by epithets and 30 second spots.
Warren has clearly run the best campaign of all the Democratic candidates. That’s been somewhat a surprise. She certainly has other political vulnerabilities and a litany of mistakes she will be confronted with. But she is pointing the way toward a reasoned and winning alternative to Trump’s economic argument. Add that to growing public disenchantment with Trump’s behavior and decisions, and you’ve found a pathway to the White House. Calling her a socialist won’t derail that momentum, if she stays focused. It’s the economy, comrade.
Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on October 20, 2019.