Nobody running for major political office in the United States is a socialist. Or maybe more accurately, nobody is running on a truly socialist platform.
Candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii and Bernie Sanders in Vermont have thrown around the term, prompting much hand-wringing among conservatives and moderate Democrats alike. Technically, they’re calling themselves Democratic Socialists, but it’s the S-word that has everybody so worked up.
Thankfully, as far as I’m aware nobody has yet argued that the proletariat should rise up and seize the means of production. Instead, they’re mostly calling for beefed-up versions of policies that some Democrats have long pushed for such as universal health care, free public college and affordable housing.
On the housing point, there’s actually pretty broad agreement that it should be a priority. Some of the other programs seem improbable when the country has already maxed out its metaphorical credit card several times over. But hey, realism isn’t exactly a requirement to hold public office.
In other words, yes, there are a handful of notably far-left candidates running for office right now. But no, we are not on the road to becoming the next Venezuela. Let’s dive into that comparison, though, since so many people have made it recently.
Venezuela’s current government is socialist in name. But in practice, it’s a dictatorship with communist tendencies. And it’s run by a uniquely inept president.
Since taking over in 2013, President Nicolas Maduro has shuttered private industry, squandered oil wealth, hampered free trade, dissolved Venezuela’s democratically elected Legislature and replaced its once relatively impartial judiciary with sycophants.
The results have been disastrous.
Inflation is almost immeasurable. Grocery stores are empty. Money is worthless. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Colombia and Brazil. It’s perhaps the largest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s a bad situation. And socialism is indeed partly to blame. But blaming Venezuela’s collapse entirely on socialism presumes that Mr. Maduro has any coherent ideology or economic policy at all. He doesn’t. He’s making it up as he goes.
Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, could more accurately be described as a socialist. He systematically oversaw a massive redistribution of wealth, nationalized the oil industry and vastly expanded safety net programs.
Venezuela started to falter, but it didn’t completely collapse.
That’s not to say that Mr. Chavez was an upstanding guy. He wasn’t. Nor is it to suggest that his policies were good for Venezuela. They emphatically weren’t.
It’s just that Venezuela’s current crisis has more to do with the iron-fisted rule of an utterly incompetent dictator than it does with the nuances of governing philosophy.
So is the United States in danger of sliding toward the same kind of crisis? No. At least not because a handful of far-left candidates might get elected in November or in 2020.
As long as we maintain free, fair elections, guard against authoritarianism, uphold our system of checks and balances and preserve the federal system and home rule, we’ll be just fine.
That said, anybody running as a socialist — or Democratic Socialist as the case may be — should consider re-branding. The word turns off a lot of people. And they’re not talking about true socialism anyway.
Dozens of countries like South Africa, Israel and South Korea all have some form of free or universal health care, for example. They also pretty enthusiastically embrace capitalism.
Dozens of countries such as New Zealand and Uruguay offer free public college. They’re mostly doing just fine.
As for affordable housing, well, even Charleston provides that. Or tries at least. And so far Mayor John Tecklenburg hasn’t publicly suggested overthrowing the bourgeoisie.
So those policies obviously aren’t entirely beyond the pale in the United States. In fact, we already have lots of programs that are socialist-adjacent, for better or for worse. But calling them “socialism” alienates a good portion of the population, and not without good reason.
What’s so wrong with just running as a Democrat or as an independent, like Mr. Sanders has for most of his career? The word “independent” has a pretty great connotation in the United States, after all.
The political climate in the United States is tumultuous enough already. It’s crucial that we have some serious and open-minded discussions about policy ideas without fear-mongering or breathless warnings about our imminent collapse.
We can argue about the wisdom of expanding government. I’d generally advise against it. We can certainly argue about how to pay for things. It’s hard to wring more tax money out of light pockets.
But we shouldn’t worry about turning into Venezuela. Sure, some American candidates are calling themselves socialists, but el capitalismo is alive and well.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier. He previously worked in Bogota, Colombia.