Politically Healthy Language

During David Remnick’s interview with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on his recent New Yorker podcast, he asked her why she calls herself a “socialist” when her ideas sound very much like New Deal liberalism. I was exasperated by her reply just as I’m exasperated by the way Bernie Sanders does likewise and also by the way he calls his advocacy of a program of reforms a “revolution.”

The insistence by these very smart people in trying to reclaim their opponents’ accusations by adopting their terminology and redefining it to suit their own views strikes me as politically obtuse. Bernie belongs to the generation that thought moving from “protest” to “resistance” to “revolution” was a boldly courageous stand when instead it fractured the overwhelmingly non-revolutionary anti-Vietnam War movement and helped to promote opposition to it. Ocasio-Cortez should know better.

Merriam-Webster’s note on “socialism” makes clear that these politicians are being more provocative than accurate:
In the many years since “socialism” entered English around 1830, it has acquired several different meanings. It refers to a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control, but the conception of that control has varied, and the term has been interpreted in widely diverging ways, ranging from statist to libertarian, from Marxist to liberal. In the modern era, "pure" socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as democratic socialism, in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.
Neither of them advocates nationalizing American industries. At best they are Western European-style democratic socialists, advocating a system in which capitalism generates the wealth which can then be taxed and shared for social purposes.

The exception is the private health insurance industry, which both candidates have said they want to abolish.

I can’t help sympathizing, since I wish we had a single-payer government system like Britain’s; but the fact is the overwhelming majority of voters are opposed to this notion, and embracing it as an immediate goal just confirms in the public’s mind that the Republicans may have a point in claiming “The Democrats want to take away your health insurance.”

Ezra Klein analyzes this problem thoughtfully in his Vox piece “Abolish private insurance? It depends.”

In my opinion a smarter answer to the question would run along these lines:

Private health insurance companies, both for-profit and nonprofit, have plenty of problems that need to be solved to provide affordable health care and reduce the amount Americans spend on it. Medicare and Medicaid have their own problems, but they are far more efficient than the private industry, and would be even more so if conservatives had not legally barred the government from seeking lower prices for drugs.

I prefer the proposal to open a program like Medicare to the general public as an option and let it compete on an even playing field with private insurance. Then we could see which was more attractive. "Free market" advocates don’t like government competing in the marketplace, but this is one instance in which the evidence is pretty strong that it would be healthier both economically and medically for the US to provide such an option. That would be a truly free market.

Just don’t call it “socialism.”

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