It’s a puzzle. Over the last decade, Venezuela has supplanted Cuba as the Shangri-La of the American left. Not long ago, self-declared socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders insisted that the American dream was more achievable in the Bolivarian Republic than in America. A string of Hollywood luminaries made the pilgrimage to visit the socialist Mecca to say ponderous and stupid things.
Today, the praise is more muted, because events have illuminated that stupidity. The government recently advised its citizens to eat their pet rabbits. Inflation in Venezuela is reminiscent of Weimar Germany. Roughly 85 percent of Venezuelan companies have stopped production to one extent or another, in the most oil-rich country in the world.
And yet, socialism is arguably more popular — in theory — than at any time in American history, particularly among young people. A Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation poll last November found that 42 percent of young people support capitalism, but 44 percent prefer socialism for a socioeconomic system.
Why the disconnect? For conservatives of my ilk, the most obvious answer is that, for the left, socialism itself is never to blame. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s Twitter feed, which insists daily that the socialist ideal has never been tarnished by real-world socialists. A tweet permanently affixed to the top of their page reads: “Are you about to tell us ‘Socialism was tried in Russia’ or ‘Look at Venezuela’ etc? It has NEVER EXISTED! It comes AFTER global capitalism!”
Even mainstream liberals don’t like to concede any points in socialism’s disfavor. The late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was a murderer and a tyrant. So was the late Cuban communist Fidel Castro. Pinochet helped his country transition to democracy. Castro, who killed more people, left his country as a police state. But while Pinochet is a demonic figure in the liberal imagination, Castro’s status is far more complicated. He is still a hero to many.
For the last decade, the New York Times has covered the socialism of both Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, with the same sophisticated nuance it long applied to Cuba. Over the weekend, it ran a heart-wrenching story on how Venezuela’s poor children are dying from starvation. But the culpability of Chavism, Venezuela’s brand of socialism, is something the reader has to bring to the page. Such passive detachment between cause (in this case, socialist policies) and effect (mass misery and starvation) is rarely found when the Times reports on, say, Republican economic policy.
The disconnect between socialism’s record and its invincible appeal also stems from leftists’ denial of what it really entails. Thus, Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, dragged the Labor Party away from its official socialist dogma about the need for the “common ownership of the means of production.”
“Socialism for me,” Blair said, “was never about nationalization or the power of the state, not just about economics or even politics. It is a moral purpose to life, a set of values, a belief in society, in cooperation, in achieving together what we cannot achieve alone.”
That’s why he rejected socialism in favor of what he called “social-ism.”
Similarly, Bernie bros focus on social solidarity rather than political economy.
But even this watered down spirit of “we’re all in it together” — whether you call it socialism or nationalism — can do enormous damage. It is very hard to reconcile with democracy and the rule of law, unless there’s a dire national crisis, and even then it may cause grave damage.
I don’t want America to be Denmark. But at least Denmark recognizes that social democracy requires democracy, free speech and the rule of law to keep it from turning into Venezuela on the Baltic. I wouldn’t be so concerned about the rising support for socialism among young people in the United States, save for the fact that it’s been accompanied by a modest decline in support for democracy, too.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.