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Georgia's Senate runoffs show Democrats need a new message on socialism. Here's what to do.

Republicans have called Democrats "socialist" since the New Deal. What they're really deriding is our system of checks and balances, applied to the market.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Campaign event for senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in Cumming, Georgia
Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler wearing protective masks clap during a campaign event in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 13, 2020.Dustin Chambers / Reuters file

The word "socialism" has been used for well over a century to sow panic among Americans and protect the interests of the very rich by giving a name to what Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as “fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”

Though Herbert Hoover's accusations on the eve of the 1932 elections that Democrats had “the same philosophy of government which has poisoned all Europe; they have been the fumes of the witch’s cauldron which boiled in Russia” gained little traction then, President Donald Trump and other Republicans have had considerable success in spreading similar fears now.

Trump's loss in November hasn't quieted the noise: In a recent campaign speech in support of his runoff election, Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., told Georgians that he and the state’s other Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, are all that stand between America and “a radical socialist agenda.”

Democrats need an effective counter to the “socialism” canard — preferably before the critical Jan. 5 Georgia Senate elections — as well as a way to bring together their progressive and moderate wings. But to accomplish both objectives, it will take something at which the party has long been notoriously poor: messaging.

Democrats should go on offense, both by showing Americans what Republicans mean by "socialism" and by giving the Republicans' approach a name that captures what they believe.

A necessary — though insufficient — starting point will be to make clear to voters that what the Republicans are denouncing as "socialism" is nothing like the current systems in Cuba or Venezuela or the old systems in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. (Exit polls from Florida strongly suggest how effective such messaging was there in 2020.) Rather, what Republicans decry as "socialism" is a set of policies that a large majority of Americans strongly favor — and from which they already benefit.

The supposed “socialism” that Democrats support includes the military, police and fire departments, public schools, roads, the Post Office, Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes, combating climate change, protecting us all against contaminated foods, overseeing essential scientific research and assuring that medications — and vaccines — are safe and effective.

The last of those are both central to combating the current pandemic and a striking illustration of the absurd lengths to which some Republicans are willing to go to fight what they deem "socialism."

For instance, in her 2007 screed against the “socialism” of the New Deal, "The Forgotten Man," Amity Shlaes referred to the Food and Drug Administration as “an outrageous theft of a function normally provided by the private sector — quality control.” How would the market deal with food and drugs that kill people? After enough people die, those left alive would stop buying those products and the companies would have to start making products that leave their consumers alive.

Democrats need an effective counter to the “socialism” canard as well as a way to bring together their progressive and moderate wings.

Democrats should thus go on offense, both by showing Americans the truth of what Republicans mean by "socialism" and by giving the Republicans' approach a name that truly captures what they believe. They want huge corporations and billionaires to have free rein to accumulate most of the nation’s wealth without concern about how miserably the rest of the population may live — or whether they live at all.

They are, in fact, the present-day incarnation of the selfish Gilded Age men who were called social Darwinists — but since even their Darwinism is unconcerned with society’s needs, let's call them anti-social Darwinists.

Most importantly, though, Democrats need to start using a name for their economic approach that is both attractive and emphasizes what it really is — not socialism, but capitalism with checks and balances.

The model for the economic approach that we need can be seen in the political system that the Founding Fathers created in 1787. Though they did not put it in quite the same way, the American founders understood the benefits and inherent dangers of democracy in much the same way as Winston Churchill did when he said in 1947, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

While most of the men who negotiated the U.S. Constitution had come to believe that democracy is the “least bad” political system, they were very mindful of its inherent flaws, including the threat of an unhinged demagogue misleading a large portion of the population. Accordingly, they devised a system based on democracy, but with a variety of checks and balances to restrain its tendencies to produce dangerous excesses.

What Republicans now decry as "socialism" was the essence of the New Deal.

What Democrats then need to do is apply to our economic system the wisdom the founders employed in establishing the American political system. Contrary to what most Republicans tell us, no one should pretend that unrestrained capitalism is perfect or all-wise; among economic systems that have been tried, capitalism is the “least bad” — and it is essential that we have a basically market system.

But it is also vital that we have and utilize a set of economic checks and balances — such as regulations and taxation — that will enable us to enjoy the abundance of the market without seeing it concentrated in the hands and financial accounts of a minuscule fraction of our people while the middle class withers and people who are poor are left trapped in poverty.

The most accurate term for this approach would be “constitutional economics.” Unfortunately, extreme anti-government economist James M. Buchanan inappropriately appropriated that name for his radically different program to, as Nancy MacLean accurately put it in “Democracy in Chains,” “save capitalism from democracy—permanently.”

So, to avoid some confusion, the Democratic economic method could instead be called economic constitutionalism.

And though the name will be fresh, the approach itself is not new.

No one should pretend that unrestrained capitalism is perfect or all-wise.

After the worship of the unchecked market in the 1920s caused the economy to fall into the Great Depression, Roosevelt employed exactly this economic technique to address the crisis. Indeed, in his speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco during his 1932 presidential campaign, Roosevelt called for “an economic constitutional order” that would provide “a balancing.”

More than four years later, in his second inaugural address in 1937, FDR said, “We must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” and he directly linked the New Deal’s efforts to do so with the Constitution, drawn up in Philadelphia 150 years earlier. “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” Roosevelt declared. “We know now that it is bad economics.” Following that principle, the New Deal saved capitalism by reining in its innate excesses.

What Republicans now decry as "socialism" was the essence of the New Deal; economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it “countervailing power” in his 1952 book "American Capitalism"; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., refers to it today as “capitalism with rules.”

Rather than “socialism," the Democrats’ approach is, in fact, simply applying the genius of the American founders to the economy — and the way once again to restore capitalism to good health.

The prescription for what ails the body economic today parallels the one written for the body politic by those revered patriots who met in Philadelphia in 1787; it is applying the political system of James Madison and the pragmatic balancing of Franklin Roosevelt to our current top-heavy economy.

And what could be more American? It could even be a part of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address —but in order to give him an opportunity to put it into effect, it ought to be used before then, in the Georgia Senate runoff races.