}

Friday, July 27, 2018

The long-term path

A recent poll claimed that three-quarters of Americans wouldn’t vote for a “socialist”. While there’s truth in that assertion, the reality is, of course, far more complicated than that poll suggests. It does, however, hint at the way to utterly transform US politics.

The Hill.TV/HarrisX American Barometer poll released earlier this week found that “an overwhelming majority of respondents, 76 percent, said they would not vote for a ‘socialist’ political candidate, while only 24 percent of those polled said they would vote for a socialist candidate.” Other polls have found similar opposition. But, as always, the headline fact doesn’t tell the whole story.

First, and most importantly, no data was reported that would allow us to evaluate the poll. What was the sample size? What was the margin of error? What is the confidence level? All those are vital to being able to determine the validity of the poll. Moreover, we don’t know how the questions were asked, and this matters a lot, too.

Very often pollsters ask generic questions that produce merely generic answers. For example, asking if someone would vote for “a socialist” will produce quite different results than asking if someone would vote for, say, Bernie Sanders. People vote for people, not ideologies, though the platform presented by a candidate matters a lot for gaining supporters, and, more importantly, for motivating supporters to actually vote. In the USA, voters are generally more likely to be motivated by the specific person rather than imprecise labels, as even self-described conservatives have discovered. However, the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” do matter most of the time.

That aside, there’s no doubt that Americans have a particular antipathy toward the word “socialist”, despite their strong support for socialist programmes like Social Security. This suggests that the problem is one of labelling, not substance or ideology.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised by this. Ever since the “Reagan revolution” in 1980, Republicans and their so-called “conservative movement” have been working hard to demonise mere liberals by branding them “socialists” (or sometimes “Marxists” or “communists”, though ordinary rightwingers often string them all together, often throwing in “fascist” for maximum silly belittling). So, after nearly 40 years of constant propaganda against everyone on the Left, and socialists especially, it’s no surprise that ordinary American voters have a sort of visceral reaction against the generic label “socialist”.

The bigger question is whether socialist ideas and agendas can win votes, and the reality is that we just don’t know. Certainly Bernie Sanders was more popular than would have been expected if people were as repulsed by socialists as common wisdom would have us believe. Same for the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York's 14th District. She describes herself as a Democratic Socialist, as Sanders has sometimes done, too.

The Democratic Party’s establishment is having none of it. US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was asked by CBS News after Ocasio-Cortez’s win whether Democratic Socialism was in the “ascendant”, and she answered with a firm “no”. She added: "It's ascendant in [Ocasio-Cortez’s] district perhaps, but I don't accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans. So let me reject that right now."

And that right there is the problem: “I don't accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans” is not the correct answer. One must never let one’s adversaries define the terms of battle, but the Democratic Party establishment has been keen to roll over and let exactly that happen without so much as a whimper.

There is an alternative.

In 1988, TV preacher Pat Robertson ran for president, and while he did well with evangelicals, he scared the hell, so to speak, out of ordinary Republicans. He said after his defeat that his faction had it backwards, and rather than start at the top, they needed to start at the bottom—school boards, county boards, etc., and work their way up.

This is the only time I’ve ever said this: Pat was right. Thirty years later, they have complete control of the national Republican Party, most state parties (and lots of local offices), and the US Vice President is one of their politicians. While the religious extremists still scare the hell out of a huge chunk of the American electorate, a big enough percentage of voters have no problem with voting for religious extremists, even if they’re not actively seeking them.

The lesson is that Progressives and even—gasp!—socialists need to do the same thing and get elected to the smallest offices in order to show voters that not only is there nothing to be frightened of, there are very good reasons to vote for candidates on the Left.

But it starts with showing voters that socialists, Progressives, and even good ol’ Liberals are not the monsters the Right says we are. We must define ourselves, and not let our adversaries do it for us. It worked for Pat Robertson and his religious extremists, and it will work for us, too. It’ll take time, energy, and money, but it WILL work.

Of course, all of this assumes elections will still matter in years to come, which is still an open question. But if the Republic is strong enough to survive its current nightmare, then something must change. By building a solid base of support for the Left from the ground up, it will eventually make it impossible for the oligarchs and plutocrats to impose their will on the American people, and that will utterly transform US politics.

Is that not worth the effort?

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