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Democrats fell into the language trap — again

The Hill logo The Hill 2 days ago Dave Anderson, opinion contributor
a woman in glasses looking at the camera: Democrats fell into the language trap — again © Reuters/Pool Democrats fell into the language trap — again

Moderate House Democrats, who are witnessing a loss of at least nine House seats as of Nov. 17, blasted their progressive House colleagues in a three hour conference call Nov. 5 for calling their very progressive agenda "socialist" and for actually defending a very progressive agenda.

They have a legitimate two-part critique.

The Democratic Party has fallen into the language trap again, only this time they themselves have used some of the key words and talking points that the Republicans previously used to defeat both sitting members and Democrats running for open seats.

There is a straightforward solution to the language issue, while the substantive policy issue is much more complicated. Democrats need to stop using the following words: socialism, capitalism, and liberalism. Each of these words ruins them.

The word they should use, which is actually two words with one hyphen connecting them, two words which are arguably most accurate from an academic point of view, are these: "mixed-economy." This term became popular in post-World War II Great Britain and was used to describe economies that were a mixture of capitalism and socialism.

It is not a sexy word, but it tells the truth.

Mixed-economies fall in between economies that revolve around the private ownership of the means of production and the public ownership of the means of production. These economies have political mechanisms that redistribute income (and to some extent wealth) and regulate business and the private sector in general. Mixed-economies may have some government institutions that replace private sector mechanisms with public ones, such as health care and child care.

Democrats who support policies that speak to a robust mixed-economy, like "Medicare for All," should defend those policies but not call them "socialist" policies. Indeed, they should not say that Medicare for All is part of a liberal, socialist, or capitalist point of view. Instead, they should say these policies are part of a robust mixed-economy.

None of the old labels help the Democrats.

"Liberalism" is the old "L" word that has little value in the political arena. It has been a coffin word for several decades.

"Socialism" is a disaster for the vast majority of candidates. This word not only falsely describes policies like Medicare for All and Universal Pre-K, it has connotations associated with Marxism, totalitarian Russia, totalitarian China, and totalitarian Cuba.

"Capitalism" is not, as a rule, a good word to use because it makes many people think of hands-off laissez-faire capitalism, Herbert Hoover style - and Democrats don't support old-style, pre-New Deal capitalism. Actually, Republicans - by and large - don't support it either. Most Republicans in Washington, including President Trump, support the mixed-economy, admittedly a more modest version than most Democrats but a mixed-economy nonetheless.

Fancy terms like "Green Capitalism" and "Responsible Capitalism" are also confusing and should, like tanning machines, be avoided.

It is time, therefore, to jettison the words liberalism, socialism, and capitalism from Democratic Party talking points. Moreover, Democrats need to drop their paternalistic postures and stop assuming that citizens can't process terms like "mixed-economy" or be motivated by them.

By avoiding the truth, Democrats force citizens, politicians and pundits to make a choice: You are either a capitalist or a socialist. Those - in the current climate - are the only two possibilities. So you either boast that you're a capitalist to prove you're not a Cuban communist - or you say you're a socialist when you're not. And then Republicans accuse you of being an anti-American radical left-winger who hates the free enterprise system and favors hand-outs over hard work and patriotism.

The centrist Democrats have a solid criticism of the progressives.

What they don't have is a solution to the problem.

Using the term "mixed-economy" rather than socialism, capitalism or liberalism - or "welfare state" for that matter - is a first step.

A second step would be to craft policies that reflect a creative synthesis and not just a bland compromise of moderate and progressive values. These policies - along with the "mixed-economy" term - need to be woven together with a vision for the country that will also address the tribal identity conflicts that have arisen in recent years.

The Democrats must take the lead on introducing a new set of words and an ambitious approach to policy and conflicts that will speak to the centrists, progressives and the millions of citizens who did not vote for Joe Biden or for Democratic candidates in the House or Senate.

The place to start is healing the division within the Democratic Party itself.

Dave Anderson is the editor of "Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of "Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of "The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland's 8th Congressional District. Contact him at dmamaryland@gmail.com.

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