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The capitalism vs. socialism debate: Bring it on

This is where America in 2019 finds itself, arguing over a settled question

As Democratic hopefuls turn themselves into ideological pretzels, socialist standby Bernie Sanders is finally getting some company, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As Democratic hopefuls turn themselves into ideological pretzels, socialist standby Bernie Sanders is finally getting some company, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Capitalism vs. socialism. It sounds like a debate topic better suited to a ’60s Berkley lecture hall than a 21st-century presidential campaign taking place in a robust, capitalist economy.

But that is where America in 2019 finds itself, arguing over what seems to be a settled question for anyone with a cursory knowledge of socialism’s bleak record of lackluster economies in many countries and totalitarianism in many others. Whether it was revolutionary Cuba in the last century or Venezuela in this century, socialism can take a nation down a dangerous path to poverty and oppression, propped up by authoritarian governments that destroy freedom and opportunity.

So maybe this is exactly the debate we need, as more and more Democrats seem to believe that it’s time for America to move even further left toward an economic system that will inevitably change the very character and future of this nation, and not for the better. Socialism is slowly making a comeback, a cultural shift that should concern political and business leaders of both parties.

The latest survey by Winning the Issues (Feb. 28-March 1) asked people to choose which economic system — capitalism or socialism — was “better,” repeating a question asked last April as well. The findings were both encouraging and disturbing.

Over the past 11 months, both capitalism and socialism gained a couple of points, but a large percentage of the country remains unsure. By party, Republicans continue to be the strongest supporters of capitalism by 73 percent to 10 percent. A majority of independents favored capitalism 56 percent to 13 percent, but over the past year, 4 percent moved toward socialism.

It is in the Democratic Party, however, that socialism has gained an ideological foothold. Democrats are evenly split on the two economic systems, with capitalism at 35 percent and socialism at 31 percent, with 35 percent undecided. More moderate Democrats favor capitalism by a soft margin of 39-21 percent, while liberal Democrats favor socialism 40 to 32 percent.

A recent Iowa Poll (Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom, March 2019) of likely Democratic caucus-goers — the base that is dividing the party and driving its presidential candidates further and further to the extreme left — ought to worry anyone who yearns for a Democratic victory next year.

Some 56 percent of Democrats said they would be “satisfied” (15 percent “very satisfied,” 41 percent “mostly satisfied”) with a presidential candidate “who thinks the country should be more socialist.” Only 33 percent would be unhappy with a candidate favoring more socialism. A 2016 Iowa Poll found that 43 percent of Democrats attending the caucuses self-identified as socialists, while only 38 percent called themselves capitalists.

At the national level, we see millennials particularly vulnerable to a fascination with socialism, in part because the Great Recession of 2008 is their economic frame of reference. What they saw was a system that wasn’t delivering solutions to an economic crisis, so they were open to considering socialism.

Now the challenge is to make a more persuasive argument to this important voter group that a socioeconomic system based on redistribution of wealth is a system that, long term, can’t support itself or its policies. Inevitably, socialism at best fails to produce the kind of growth needed for a growing, dynamic economy. At its worst, it devolves into a more authoritarian and lethal form.

Venezuela is a perfect example. Human Rights Watch says “most Venezuelans go to bed hungry” as food is used as a political weapon. An estimated 3 million people have left the country as hyper-inflation and deteriorating health conditions have made life nearly impossible — all brought about by President Nicolás Maduro’s economic policies and his cruel, authoritarian rule.

In contrast, American capitalism has delivered a national unemployment rate at or below 4 percent for 12 straight months, with near record low unemployment for Hispanics, African-Americans and women. Wage growth has been accelerating for the past seven months, with February’s number at 3.4 percent, the highest wage gains in a decade. Last month also saw the labor force participation rate stay at its five-year high at 63.2 percent.

We’re seeing more investment by employers in training programs, especially helpful to workers who’ve been sidelined by a lack of skills to gain employment. That group, those without a high school diploma, saw their unemployment rate drop from 5.7 percent to 5.3 percent in February.

But despite the obvious progress capitalism is delivering, many of the Democratic presidential candidates and other party leaders seem unable to enthusiastically support capitalism, the driving force behind our economy. The party’s new face, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently called capitalism “irredeemable,” not surprising from the woman who deep-sixed the New York Amazon deal, along with the 25,000 jobs and $27 billion in tax revenue it would have generated. And of course, there’s socialism’s most prominent longtime proponent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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But most of the Democratic presidential field have turned themselves into ideological pretzels embracing the progressive left’s socialist agenda while desperately trying to avoid calling themselves either socialists or capitalists. Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are progressives who back the Green New Deal and want to talk about reparations but still insist they are Democrats, not democratic socialists.

In January, Warren tried to straddle the issue by saying she believes in capitalism, but “capitalism without rules is theft.” This week she wants to break up Big Tech.

Even centrist Democrats are trying to avoid giving their progressive opponents a sound bite for the upcoming primary ad wars. When asked on “Morning Joe” whether he was a “proud capitalist,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper couldn’t summon the wherewithal to simply call himself a capitalist, a label he eventually owned up to two days later on “Face the Nation.” Even Joe Biden seemed skittish about capitalism recently when he asked what happened to “moral capitalism.”

These candidates would be wise to listen to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In The Atlantic this week, he called the president’s State of the Union declaration that “America will never be a socialist country” a “tell” and warned that Trump is “making a bet that if he labels Democrats ‘socialists’ frequently enough, he’ll be able to drive a wedge that scares swing voters out of the Democratic fold.”

Citing Senate Republicans’ intention to allow votes on the Green New Deal and other so-called progressive legislation, the former House member warned that when Republicans are “more eager to vote on the Democratic agenda than we are, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we’re inadvertently letting the political battle play out on their turf rather than our own.”

Emanuel was the savvy architect behind the Democrats’ 2006 take-back of the House, based in large part on a recruiting strategy focused on finding more moderate Democratic congressional candidates to run in swing districts, not unlike what happened in 2018, with a few obvious exceptions.

Republicans lost the 2018 elections because they were seen as focusing more on immigration than voter concerns about the economy and cost of living. Every time Democrats from AOC to the most liberal presidential candidates embrace another extreme progressive issue position, it gives Republicans the opportunity to make the 2020 campaign about the nation’s strong economy, delivered by a president and party that proudly wear the capitalist label.

That’s a field they can win on.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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