"The Reds are going to keep your trucks." In 1961, the United States was facing what the Conservatives considered a deadly threat: the demands of a national health program to cover the elderly, in an attempt to avoid this horrible As a result, the American Medical Association launched what it called Operation Coffee Cup, a novel viral marketing attempt.
It worked in the following way: the wives of the doctors (we were in 1961) were asked to invite their friends and put a recording in which Ronald Reagan explained how socialized medicine would destroy American freedom. The housewives were supposed to write letters to the Congress denouncing the threat that Medicare involved. Evidently, the strategy did not work; Medicare not only came out, but became so popular that Republicans now systematically (and falsely) accuse Democrats of planning cuts to the funding of the program. But the strategy – to affirm that any attempt to reinforce the social buffer or to limit inequality will place us on a slippery slope towards totalitarianism – lasts.
So Donald Trumpin his speech about the state of the Union, He deviated for a moment from his usual warnings against the hideous dark-skinned beings to warn us of the threat of socialism. What do Trump supporters, or conservatives in general, refer to when they talk about "socialism"? The answer is: it depends. Sometimes it means any kind of economic liberalism. That is why, after the speech, Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, praised Trump's economy and declared that "we are not going to return to socialism." So, apparently, the United States itself was as recently as 2016 a socialist pigsty.
However, other times they refer to any Soviet-style central planning, or to an Venezuelan-style industrial nationalization, regardless of the fact that in the political life of the United States basically nobody defends such things. The trick – and "trick" is the right word – consists in oscillating between completely different meanings and hoping that nobody will notice. Do you say you want free college tuition? Think of all those who died in the famine in Ukraine. And no, it's not an exaggeration: read the strange and cloying report on socialism that Trump's economists published last fall.
Let's talk about what is truly on the table. Some American progressive politicians now they define themselves as socialists, and a considerable number of voters, including a majority of voters under the age of 30, affirm that they approve of socialism. But neither politicians nor voters demand that the State appropriate the means of production. Rather, they have assumed the conservative rhetoric that describes as socialism everything that tempers the excesses of a market economy, and they have effectively said, "OK, in that case, I am a socialist."
What Americans really want to support "socialism" is what the rest of the world calls social democracy: a market economy that limits extreme adversity with a strong social cushion and extreme inequality with progressive taxes. They want us to look like Denmark or Norway, not Venezuela.
And in case you have not been there, the Nordic countries are not in fact pigsties. They have a GDP per capita a little lower than the United States, but that is largely because they take more vacations. Compared to the United States, they have a higher life expectancy, much less poverty and a significantly higher life satisfaction in general. Oh, and they have a high entrepreneurial spirit, because people are more willing to take the risk of starting a business when they know they will not lose their health care or fall into absolute poverty if they fail.
It is clear that the economists of Trump had a hard time fitting the reality of Nordic societies in their antisocialist manifesto. In some places they say that the Nordics are not really socialists and in others they try desperately to prove that, despite appearances, the Danes and Swedes suffer: for example, they find it expensive to drive a pickup truck. And I'm not making it up.
And what about the slippery slope of progressivism to totalitarianism? There is not the slightest proof that it exists. Medicare has not destroyed freedom. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China did not derive from social democracy. Venezuela was a corrupt petro-state long before Hugo Chávez arrived. If there is a path to servitude, I can not think of any country that has taken it.
So the alarmism about socialism is ridiculous and dishonest. But will it be effective from the political point of view? Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by the US "socialists", such as raising taxes on the rich and making everyone access to Medicare (although they do not support plans that oblige citizens to leave private insurance, which is a warning to the Democrats not to turn the purity of the single payer into a definitive proof).
On the other hand, we should never belittle the force of lies. The right-wing media will accuse anyone the Democrats designate as a presidential candidate of being a reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, and millions of people will believe them. Let's hope that the other media report on the little secret of American socialism: that it is not radical at all.
Paul Krugman He is Nobel Laureate in Economics. © The New York Times, 2019.
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