“Perhaps Williamson’s own ability to overcome those obstacles has led him to underestimate how formidable a challenge they can pose, a clear example of upward mobility hardening the hearts of the precious few it bestows itself upon.”
In the conservative blogosphere, few terms inspire as much anger and discomfort as the word “socialism.” It may seem only natural for conservatives to squirm at any talk of socialism. For them, socialism conjures up nightmarish scenes of North Korean gulags, Venezuelan bread lines, and crafty KGB operatives. Of course, the word socialism brings to mind more than just the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century; for an array of diverse thinkers, socialism has been seen as a reasoned alternative to dog-eat-dog capitalism.
Kevin Williamson, a dedicated contributor to the conservative magazine National Review, has taken it upon himself to be the conservative movement’s ‘Bard of Anti-Socialism’ and lead the counter-offensive against the growing socialist movement bubbling in the Western world. Indeed, the recent issue of National Review can be best interpreted as a reaction against the growing interest in socialist politics and principles, particularly among younger Americans. In any case, Nathan Robinson from Current Affairs magazine has already done a superb job responding to their various arguments and narratives, and a whole array of magazines and publications on the Left (such as Jacobin and n+1) have arisen to offer compelling defenses of socialism to a nation that hasn’t seen true ideological competition in decades.
In a recent article for National Review entitled “The Democrats are the Socialist Party Again,” Williamson took a jab at the socialist-inflected politics bubbling within the Democratic Party. Williamson alleges that the growing leftward shift in the Democratic Party signals a return (interestingly enough) to the party’s socialist origins, while never actually demonstrating any history of socialist politicking on the part of old Democratic stalwarts such as Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson. He goes on to distinguish the Democratic Party’s newfound fascination with “socialist” policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal with the more “market-based” alternatives existing in various European welfare states, a contrast intended to shatter the progressive illusion of a European socialist paradise. This is also arguably an attempt to soften the conservative movement’s historic hostility to social programs such as Medicare.
While it would not be hard to find examples of self-described socialists and communists working within the Democratic Party throughout its history in the United States—such as anti-poverty activist and Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington—to imply that they have ever dominated the party is quite a stretch, especially considering Williamson’s inability to name names or provide clear examples in his defense. His diatribe of “inconvenient facts” that he thinks disprove core socialist arguments do offer some interesting perspectives on socialism and American politics, though these perspectives tend betray Williamson’s obvious contempt for socialist thinkers and ideas. Given Williamson’s predilection for mixing eloquent rhetoric with grandstanding and snobbish elitism towards the working class, I believe some fact-checking is in order.
Williamson’s first objectionable claim involves the socialist tendencies (or lack thereof) of Martin Luther King Jr.; indeed, he disparages Bernie Sanders for “posthumously recruiting” the black civil rights icon into his socialist-inflected campaign for office, claiming that King’s socialism was overhyped and ultimately unrelated to his primary commitment to civil rights reform. King, however, had a clear interest in left-wing politics from early on in his career, as evidenced by his earlier writings on the immorality and inequity produced by capitalism. Indeed, King had worked in close collaboration with self-described socialists Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom had spent the better part of their careers integrating the labor movement and supporting socialist policies such as a federal jobs guarantee and a basic income. Moreover, the famed “March on Washington” that they organized in 1963 was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” highlighting the civil rights movement’s close ties with organized labor and its overall demand for both racial and economic justice. These facts are a clear rebuttal to recent attempts to tie King to the conservative politics of bootstrap individualism and laissez-faire. And lest we forget (as Williamson apparently has), King was supporting a labor strike for public sanitation workers in Memphis when he was shot on that fateful April morning in 1968. This also coincided with King’s launching of the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to bring about greater economic opportunities for lower income Americans. Contrary to Williamson’s caricature of King as a bumbling late-comer to socialist politics, King’s vision of racial justice was heavily intertwined with his views on poverty and the economic betterment of all people, regardless of skin color.
This isn’t the worst case of Williamson’s cherry-picking, however. While navigating his way through the narrow differences between “socialized health care” and “socialized health insurance” (a distinction that apparently passed over the head of famed “New Deal Democrat” Ronald Reagan), Williamson makes the odd claim that American workers haven’t had it this good in years, citing a median workweek of 35.5 hours. This might be a standard “everything-is-alright” defense of capitalism, but it is not a particularly rigorous one. Total hours worked by individuals earning an income in 2016 were higher than their levels in 1979, with American workers reporting an average workweek of 47 hours, much higher than Williamson’s figure of 35.5. For all his hand-wringing over the alleged economic cluelessness of socialist and progressive lawmakers such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it seems that Williamson is letting blind ideological fury get in the way of the facts.
Even more interesting, however, is the distribution of hours worked, which is highly stratified on the basis of race and class. White workers worked longer than Hispanic workers, who in turn worked longer than black workers, a racial gap perhaps partially rooted in higher unemployment rates among workers of color as well as the latter groups’ overrepresentation in the prison population. Higher incarceration rates have historically depressed the labor force participation of people in lower income brackets and imposed artificial barriers to greater employment among former inmates. Moreover, college-educated workers also reported working more hours than high school graduates, bolstering Williamson’s claim about the (relatively) greater industriousness of the middle and upper classes. This feeds into his broader tough-love narrative about the array of economic disincentives and cultural shortcomings facing working class Americans.
But characteristic of conservatives’ culture-minded focus on work and effort, Williamson neglects to account for major disparities in the opportunities available for ordinary workers as opposed to college-educated professionals. Those with college degrees have the benefit of tighter labor markets as well as the (relatively) high bargaining power that accompanies professional skills in fields such as engineering and law. Non-college graduates, however, have borne the brunt of looser labor markets partially rooted in the deindustrialization of the American heartland (and most cities, for that matter), as evidenced by a dramatic collapse in the absolute number of manufacturing jobs that have historically provided a decent standard of living for workers of all colors. Notwithstanding Williamson’s usual grandstanding about the merits of hard work and individual initiative, it is clear to any neutral observer that the American worker (white, black, or Hispanic) has borne the brunt of the costs associated with globalization and automation, let alone more concrete policy positions that have undermined working-class bargaining power such as deregulation of key industries and other anti-labor policies.
To his credit, Williamson often provides a forthright and honest (if not unsympathetic) account of the troubles facing America’s dispossessed working class, troubles ranging from drug addiction to economic despair. It’s not hard to see why; Williamson himself briefly describes growing up in a West Texas household plagued by social dysfunction and surrounded by economic deprivation. Having worked his way out of poverty, he now is an opinion writer for the flagship publication of the conservative movement. His story, some might say, parallels that of J.D. Vance, another conservative figure whose 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy shares his own account of the plight of the white working class in rural communities. Yet Williamson’s own experience in rising above the mess of American poverty has evidently precluded his ability to empathize with the struggles facing poor Americans, particularly those residing in, “dysfunctional, downscale communities…that…deserve to die.”
Perhaps Williamson’s own ability to overcome those obstacles has led him to underestimate how formidable a challenge they can pose, a clear example of upward mobility hardening the hearts of the precious few it bestows itself upon. Williamson would do well to recount the life of Eugene Debs, whose political trailblazing carried him from the poverty-stricken railroad towns of the heartland to the presidential ticket for the Socialist Party of America. When asked about his own background, Debs declared his solidarity for his fellow workingmen and women, claiming that, “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
While no one could hope to solve the economic problems facing the American heartland with one fell swoop, a few socialist-inspired reforms might alleviate the poverty and despair in the rural communities that Williamson has depicted. The recent tightening of the national labor market has led to steady wage increases for many working-class Americans, but the typical boom-and-bust cycle endemic within capitalist economies threatens to undermine these wage gains with the onset of a new recession. Ensuring tight regional and national labor markets through active enforcement of a full employment policy would preserve existing gains for working-class households. Providing comprehensive medical coverage via Medicare-for-All would eliminate many of the deductibles and premiums that eat up working-class paychecks. And guaranteeing access to higher education via free college and vocational training would give working-class Americans an equal footing with their middle and upper-middle class counterparts in pursuing higher learning and technical training without incurring massive debt. And these are only a few policies that a more socialist administration may have to offer the toiling masses of America.
Of course, there is no certainty that socialism is the solution to what ails rural working class communities. The history of socialist politics is filled with half-victories and catastrophic defeats (as Williamson himself can attest to), and no one, not even a committed socialist such as myself, can ever again embrace the fanatical optimism that animated previous socialist movements and organizations. The chaos and catastrophes of the last century have done much to diminish the old faith in humanity and social progress in general.
But the plight of working class communities in the heartland and the giant coastal metropolises continues to rouse the opinions of millions of Americans, Williamson included.Whatever his faults, Williamson can at least be credited with an earnest concern with the plight of America’s downtrodden masses. But this concern is not of the worried family member or well-wisher but rather the contemptuous attitude of the schoolmaster, doling out abstract and tough-minded advice still in the framework of the rugged individualism of American capitalism. One can only hope that Williamson rediscovers some genuine sympathy and compassion for the plight of those in all communities, particularly those hard-bitten rural voters whose interests he claims to champion. Perhaps it’s time he consider that some of the policy changes he smears as “socialist” might actually be what’s truly needed for working people across America.
Elie Nehme studied political science at California State University, Long Beach.