“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

President Donald Trump, State of the Union address, Feb. 5, 2019



That bastard noun, regularly denounced and demonized — a conversation-stopper that’s misunderstood and mischaracterized, often intentionally.

But it sometimes can enliven things, like a chat over a pint after golf on a fine October day.

Gary said he planned to go to an upcoming Halloween party “as the scariest thing I can think of — a socialist.”

Gary was asked what a socialist looks like (“Dunno,” he mused, “maybe a red face and horns?”). And, what socialism means. (“Well … I just know I don’t like it.”)

In some form, those responses have long been common. But that may be changing. Socialism seems to be gaining respectability as folks come to understand its meaning and to hear more about a softer version, “democratic socialism.”

Merriam-Webster says online lookups for “socialism” exploded during last year’s midterm election campaigns. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has seen membership quadruple since 2016.

The rising interest is largely due to the popularity of quirky, self-described “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and to the ballyhooed congressional insurgency of New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an articulate millennial and DSA member who has come to define the new crop of congressional Democrats. That cadre includes Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s Fifth District.

Those on the political right are using “socialism” to negatively brand new-wave Democrats as they push their party leftward. Such demonization may work for a time, but eventually it could actually help promote greater understanding of what “socialism” really is and soften the word’s negative impact, just as overuse has done to pejorative connotations of “liberal” and “progressive.”

So, what is “democratic socialism?” And why should we care?

First, the basics of “socialism” itself. It’s an economic system where the community (through government) owns and controls the means of production for the social good. “Capitalism” is a system where the means of production is privately owned, with goods and services being sold for profit that’s shared by owners.

In the real world, these systems are usually combined.

Back to Gary. We were imbibing in the nicely renovated pub at Ramsey County’s Keller Golf Course. Gary draws Social Security benefits, and as a Navy veteran enjoys free care at the VA health center in Minneapolis.

Any city or county golf course like Keller, along with the federal government’s Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs, are textbook examples of socialism.

“Naw, can’t be,” Gary protested.

Actually, there’s much more.

Municipal water and sewer systems, first responder agencies, light rail and other transit operations, highways and bridges, public schools, public libraries and sometimes liquor stores are owned and run by government. So are rural electric systems, large dams and hydropower generators, airports, national parks and wildlife refuges. And, of course, Medicare and Medicaid.

Socialistic, all of it. Yet nothing very radical, much less scary.

Add “democratic” to “socialism” and you get socialism implemented by democratically elected government.

In truth, some things are best run by government. When the late Sen. John McCain pushed nuclear power as an antidote to climate change, he pointed to France’s “highly efficient and well-managed” nuclear power system — owned and run by a state corporation. That’s socialism, within a democracy.

While the U.S. is considered a “capitalist,” not a “socialist,” country, threads of socialism are deeply woven throughout our economy. And the blend works better than most, apparently including President Donald Trump, realize or willingly admit.

In the early 20th century, North Dakota’s socialistic Non-Partisan League created a state-owned bank and grain elevator to organize agricultural assets for leverage against the reviled Twin Cities bankers and millers. Both socialistic systems still operate in the politically “red” state. The state's conservative legislature still sees a public benefit.

Socialism shows up in member-owned, granola-laden cooperatives like neighborhood grocery stores, of course — but also in agricultural giants such as Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes and CHS Inc. (with roots in the Central Exchange founded in the 1930s by the liberal Farmers Union).

Owing to a dubious past, socialism has a devilish taint. Some socialistic countries — Cuba in the 1960s and Venezuela in the 1970s — nationalized businesses, many American-based, and sent indigenous capitalists packing to South Florida. What’s more, Adolf Hitler’s sinister Third Reich regime and the former “Communist” Soviet Union embraced the “socialist” label.

Critics point to present-day Venezuela as proof that socialism doesn’t work, ignoring that the country’s once-splendid (socialistic) economy has been trashed by power-crazed autocrats. A better test case is the “Nordic Model,” in which Scandinavian nations provide universal health care, “free” education and equitable pay with strong unions within democracies and capitalistic economies. These include Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland (all of which enjoy a high “social happiness” rating).

America’s angst over socialism is also due to an enduring private-sector view that capitalism works best without government interference, and that anything government does capitalism can do better (despite myriad counterexamples like the fraud and failure of for-profit colleges and prisons, big banks that hide charges for services not provided and pricing collusion by giant corporations).

Pragmatic social democrats like Sanders balk at talk of nationalizing anything, which would be over-the-top radical and self-defeating. Besides, social democrats understand that capitalism can work quite well when small companies build market share through innovative, efficient production that supplies market demand with prices set through fair competition.

They understand that consumer spending is a better barometer of economic health than the stock market, and they embrace Sen. Paul Wellstone’s maxim: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Politically, democratic socialists promote ideas that enjoy broad popularity, especially since the 2008 economic meltdown. High on the list is to aggressively regulate excesses of big-moneyed financial institutions and corporations, to tamp down the outsized influence of cash in politics and to improve worker equity amid prolonged stagnation of middle- and lower-class incomes.

Social democrats’ disdain toward big finance aligns with those in their party who distrust “Wall Street moderates” (like Bill and Hillary Clinton) and those who accept campaign contributions from special interests seeking legislative favors.

Democratic socialists resolutely oppose calls to “do something” to rein in spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Instead, a core objective is single-payer health care, or “Medicare for All” (polls show 60 percent support, and growing).

The views of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also sync with a groundswell that’s pushing the Democratic Party leftward, a tension that will be on full display through the 2020 election cycle. Some of it showed in last November’s “blue wave” that marched into Congress.

The DSA, like self-labeled democratic socialists, is not a political party. Rather, it advocates reforms to check the influence of big financial institutions and corporations through regulation, to empower “working people” (stronger unions, better pay and benefits) and to strengthen social-justice laws (improved voter access, gender and ethnic equity …).

The DSA endorses political candidates it sees as sharing its values, which have included Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Ralph Nader and Sanders. After last fall’s election, the DSA has a trove of endorsement-worthy political talent.

Expect to see more candidates self-brand as “democratic socialists” and advance popular progressive issues from affordable health care to reform of a tricked-up economy that frustrates efforts to provide relief for many living paycheck to paycheck while multimillionaire executives enjoy lavish lifestyles and massive federal tax cuts.

Here’s how the Economist put it (“Capitalism has a real problem and needs a revolution,” Star Tribune, Nov. 17, 2018):

“The sense of a system rigged to benefit the owners of capital at the expense of workers is profound. In 2016, a survey found that more than half of young Americans no longer support capitalism … . This loss of faith is dangerous, but is also warranted.”

Grating in the American hippocampus are bitter memories of fraudulent Wall Street shysters directly responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown that threw millions out of work, depleted retirement accounts, shuttered small businesses, sapped home equity and created national and worldwide financial bedlam. Taxpayer funds bailed out large companies while bankers made off with hundreds of ill-gotten millions and largely escaped legal reprimand.

Jonathan Tepper argues in “The Myth of Capitalism” that a real enemy of capitalism is capitalism run amok.

Capitalism’s core strengths are promoting innovation and entrepreneurial drive in truly competitive markets. Mergers and consolidations have grown to megamergers and oligopolies that have removed the supply/demand guardrails, leading to price collusion and other mischief that in turn has led to mega-wealth for a few, income stagnation for the many and a growing number of working poor.

Free enterprise defines America; most feel it can work quite well and want it to continue. But there’s longing in the body politic for ways to bridle capitalism’s conspicuous excesses, especially inequitable wealth concentration.

The idea that America perhaps should be more of a “democratic socialist” country is gaining respectability. The agenda it represents will be part of what’s sure to be a spirited public debate.

Ron Way lives in Edina.