Semantics Over Substance

One of the great traps that Democrats keep getting caught in is parsing and arguing over the meaning of specific words but letting the substantive issues behind those words get obscured in the process. In my youth, that was best exemplified by Michael Dukakis’ refusal and inability to defend liberalism during his 1988 campaign against Bush, a decision which allowed Republicans to pejoratively tar every Democrat with that label for years after.

Admittedly, “liberal” had become a dirty word in American politics after the disastrous McGovern campaign and the Carter presidency and Dukakis ran away from it for most of his campaign. When challenged by Bush in a debate, Dukakis weakly answered, “I don’t think these labels mean a thing. . . . Let’s stop labeling each other, and let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is the future of this country.” His answer merely indicated that he really stood for nothing. Only at the end of his campaign, when he was trying to rally the last vestiges of New Deal Democrats did he embrace the liberal tradition of FDR’s leading us out the Depression, JFK’s optimistic vision for America, and Johnson’s courageous effort to finally provide civil rights to African Americans that they had been denied since the end of the Civil War. Dukakis had an opportunity to define liberalism in the most positive way, and he declined the chance.

We can see a similar situation shaping up for 2020 where the go-to pejorative for Republicans is going to be “socialism”. Like the “liberal” attack, this will be nothing new from Republicans. Again, drawing on my youth, I remember when Ronald Reagan was attacking Medicare as the beginning of the slippery slope to not only “socialized medicine” but the end of freedom.

While it may be easy for Democratic candidates to take a cheap shot at Sanders as a self-avowed democratic socialist, they should resist that temptation because they will have to defend themselves against that charge from Trump if they win the nomination. Running away from “socialism” today will force them into the same bind that Dukakis found himself in in 1988. The Democrats don’t have to embrace the label per se but merely say that if Republicans think that providing a path to universal health insurance, taxing the top 0.1% at high marginal tax rates to address inequality, lifting working wages, actually investing in infrastructure and education as opposed to just handing out tax breaks, and attacking climate change is bad policy then we are happy to run against them on those issues.

Another classic example of the battle over words obscuring the actual issues is the latest brouhaha over Ilhan Omar’s comments on Israel. Whether you believe she was deliberately using an anti-Semitic slur or that it was just an inarticulate use of an expression freighted with historical meaning is largely irrelevant to the larger point that Omar was clearly making which was to question our largely unquestioned relationship with Israel and having, as she explained in her answer that is currently being criticized as anti-Semitic, a “broader debate about ‘what is happening with Palestine?’”. Unfortunately, the reaction to her comments have only proved the truth of her fuller message, that merely asking the question provokes such a response that it prevents the question from actually being considered. But her question is no different than those questioning our unflinching support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11, the Yemini slaughter, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a group that includes Omar as well. Moreover, Omar’s larger point on Israel rings even more relevant when you consider that states across the country are passing clearly unconstitutional anti-BDS legislation that infringes on American citizens’ rights to oppose Israeli actions.

In a slightly different vein, there is the ongoing argument between economists on the left about the meaning and validity of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Without getting into the weeds of the dispute, it’s clear that economists like Krugman and Larry Summers think of MMT as the “voodoo economics” of the left. Just as supply side economics and the mantra that tax cuts will pay for themselves are perhaps realistic at extremely high marginal tax rates, MMT is probably a realistic framework for looking at a low demand, low interest rate environment. As a political matter, however, that dispute seems less relevant. Republicans have been using supply side voodoo to pass enormous wealth to the richest Americans while ignoring the consequences for our national debt for four decades now. If Democrats can employ a different economic theory to finally convince Americans of the efficacy of government spending for progressive policies with at least some offsets from higher taxes on the wealthy, it would not seem unreasonable to use it. And, as Brad DeLong concedes, without any reasonable Republicans to work with, it is time that “the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left”.

As we head in to 2020, it is important for Democrats to focus relentlessly on their actual issues and not get drawn into debates about the meaning of “socialism” and attacking the messenger rather than considering the message. In other words, focus on substance over style, please.

Originally published at on March 6, 2019.

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