The next big American debate

In his State of the Union address and since, Mr. Trump has targeted socialism. It is an astute political move.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Members of the group Socialist Alternative participate in a rally in Boston in August 2017.

On the first day of his political career in 2015, announcing his bid for the presidency, Donald Trump changed the trajectory of American politics. His invective from Trump Tower against illegal immigration was crude, divisive, and played off misperceptions about the state of illegal immigration, yet it unquestionably hit home for many Americans. Not for the last time, Mr. Trump displayed an uncanny ability to read the voters who would become his base and to weaponize an issue for electoral advantage.

Now, Mr. Trump is doing it again, and the entire country should be paying attention.

In his State of the Union address and since, Mr. Trump has targeted socialism. It is an astute political move. In today’s polarized politics, Mr. Trump’s greatest challenge is not likely to come from the center but from the left, and many new liberal stars have no compunction about embracing elements of socialism. In casting new Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, as threats to American capitalism, Mr. Trump is taking a page from the modern political playbook. Fear of the other party motivates more than affinity for one’s own party, studies show.

Yet, as with immigration, this is not all bluster. America needed to have a robust and open debate about immigration. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump played a major role in turning it toxic. But his political instincts – that this was a major unresolved issue – were spot on.

The same is true of socialism. The Monitor, you might remember, wrote a cover story on this topic in October 2018. The fact is, millennials and Generation Z are growing up in an economic system that leaves them with few long-term job prospects, massive amounts of student debt, and chronic questions about whether minorities and the poor are given equal opportunity. Their openness to more-socialist ideas (while not to socialism itself) is real. And it deserves a robust and open debate. At issue is America’s economic identity.

Since its founding, the United States has been built on individualism and a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative. But there are signs of change.

At a recent media workshop, I met Bill Nichols, a former managing editor at Politico who is now launching a journalistic venture called Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. While poverty and welfare are still fairly unpopular political issues, the “bootstraps” narrative is increasingly being seen as a myth. Instead, there is a growing realization that – from educational opportunities to after-college professional networks – the upper middle class, in particular, has built-in economic advantages today.

Is the answer a bigger dollop of European-style socialism? Some on the left think so, and the president is attempting to generate fear around that. The deeper question is, what is the uniquely American way to spread opportunity as widely as possible? Mr. Nichols offers a suggestion: “The dignity of work is a distinctly American concept,” he says. The sense of self-worth in work is something Americans “go at differently from how Europeans look at it.” In that idea is the seed of a very different debate that is fundamentally American, constructive, and urgent.

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