Condemning socialism is now a bad thing, according to Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. If only he could tell us what socialism is.
First, the context behind all of this, which you can probably take a decent stab at: During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Donald Trump condemned socialism, both in its incipient stages (the United States) and its final throes (Venezuela).
“Two weeks ago, the United States officially recognized the legitimate government of Venezuela, and its new president, Juan Guaidó,” Trump said.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Máduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” he said.
Then he brought it back home: “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said.
“America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control,” he said. “We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
That would be a pretty uncontroversial statement in any other era, but because the Democrats are now all about embracing self-declared socialists — one remains thoroughly lodged in second place in the polling for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, after all — we have people like Merkley defending it.
However, he has problems saying exactly what socialism is, as you’ll see from his appearance on CNN. Host Erin Burnett asked Merkley whether or not he agreed with the president, and he promptly launched into an answer that had virtually nothing to do with socialism.
“You know, the president started out by saying he was going to be bipartisan, wanted to bring people together, but he just couldn’t restrain himself from going into campaign mode,” Merkley said.
“And certainly, we heard Paul Ryan say, when he was speaker, now that we’ve won this big tax giveaway to the richest Americans, we have to dismantle these social programs,” the senator said. “We have to dismantle Medicare or tone it down, we have to diminish Social Security, what they refer to as entitlements.
Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley (OR) tries to define socialism: "Well, it is a society coming together to increase the standard of living of our seniors, and that is pretty much the definition. And the president's attacking it." pic.twitter.com/YYp1IF69KM
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) February 8, 2019
“I call them programs earned and very smart programs for our seniors, and I support those. And the president wants to tear those apart? I think he is making a big mistake for the quality of life in America.”
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“But you don’t see that as socialism, right, in terms of the word?” Burnett said. “It is a word of significance.”
“It is a society coming together to increase the standard of living of our seniors,” he said. “And that is pretty much the definition. And the president is attacking it.”
So, let me ask my good friends at Merriam-Webster what socialism is. They have four definitions, the first being “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
None of the four definitions, it’s worth noting, comes anywhere close to “a society coming together to increase the standard of living of our seniors.” Lest you think that Merriam-Webster is a secret member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, the Oxford dictionary defines socialism virtually the same way.
This is the invariable problem with defending socialism — you can’t actually say what it is. Take Sen. Bernie Sanders’ explication of the concept.
“So let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,” the Vermont independent said in prepared remarks in 2015. “It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that; ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’
“It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”
Yes, socialism is the bright face of a child born to a poor family, wondering whether she can realize her dreams. Socialism is the elderly trying to get by on Social Security. Socialism is the mighty redwood forests that need protecting and the eager young graduate and something Martin Luther King said and another thing FDR or JFK said, and the wind blowing through the gentle cornfields as Woody Guthrie sings a gentle folk tune about the forgotten man.
And it’s never “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
That lack of intellectual honesty should be a red flag to any observer. Socialism is always something vague and friendly sounding, but not necessarily concrete.
When it does move from the abstract to the actual, you get something like New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s farcical Green New Deal, which is going to provide campaign fodder for Republicans for eons to come.
And that’s the invariable problem with pushing socialism as the future of the Democratic Party. If you can’t define it, why should people vote for it? And if you do define it, why would people vote for it?
Merkley seems to know that — and while he’s willing to stand up for socialism when Trump criticizes it, don’t ever expect him to say what it actually is.