Politics and the Clash of Economic Stories

by Alan F. Zundel

(Originally posted October 7, 2017)

Politics in the U.S. has always been organized primary around competing stories about the economy. These stories help people make sense of what’s going on in the larger society, what it is that threatens them, and what the government should do about it.

The stories typically start with a “once upon a time” beginning, go on to explain how a problem arose, identify heroes and villains, and end with a call to action. In the last Presidential election four stories were in play, and they are still in play today. Which story someone accepts defines their political orientation and shapes their political actions, most importantly how they vote.

The New Deal Progressive Story

The New Deal Progressive Story was most famously framed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and became the organizing story of the Democratic Party for about a half a century. It goes like this:

Once upon a time America was a land of economic opportunity for ordinary people, but then big corporations, greedy for power and profits, took over the economy and led us into a horrible depression. Roosevelt brought people together to restrain the economic elite by putting limits on the actions of big corporations and creating a social safety net for people in times of need.

The story dominated U.S. politics for several decades but began to lose its hold on the Democratic Party by the 1980s. It has returned to prominence with the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and is also popular among progressive Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren. The new version goes like this:

Once upon a time FDR’s New Deal policies resulted in 25 years of prosperity and rising incomes for all, but then big business leaders conspired with extreme conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and undid our progress. Now we have to rebuild and extend Roosevelt’s coalition to defend and extend the social safety net and again regulate the actions of big business.

The Libertarian Conservative Story

The reason the New Deal Progressive Story lost ground, however, is not addressed by its new story tellers. Ronald Reagan was not just a creature of big business, he was a widely popular President because he told a compelling story that explained the economic problems of the 1970s. His story was the Libertarian Conservative Story, and it goes like this:

Once upon a time we had economic freedom and opportunity in this country, but then ambitious politicians created big government programs that promised too much to too many people in the 1960s and ruined the economy in the 1970s. President Reagan brought people back to traditional values and revived the economy by lowering taxes and freeing the economy from excessive regulation.

This has been the defining story of the Republican Party since the Reagan administration, and was told by virtually all of the 2016 Presidential candidates except Donald Trump.

The Neo-Liberal New Democrat Story

When leaders of the Democratic Party found themselves losing voters to the Republicans’ Libertarian Conservative Story, some of them came up with a new story, the Neo-Liberal New Democrat Story. It goes like this:

Once upon a time the Democrats’ New Deal led us into rising prosperity for all, but then the economy changed and we didn’t change with it. As a result we lost voters to the Reagan Republicans, who led people in the wrong direction. President Bill Clinton saw that we needed to adapt to the globalization of the economy with new trade agreements and provide education and training to bring workers into the new economy. We need to fight for this against the forces of the Reagan Republicans.

This has been the story told by most Democratic politicians since the Clinton administration, and was best represented in the 2016 Presidential election by Hillary Clinton. (Of course!) But because the Clinton era policies did not bring their promised benefits to working people, the New Democrats were challenged by Bernie Sanders’ revival of the party’s New Deal Progressive wing. The two wings are now fighting over the future of the Democratic Party and which story will represent it.

The Alien Undermining Story

The Alien Undermining Story is an old one, but did not have as much influence as the other three stories until it was picked up by Donald Trump in his 2016 Presidential campaign. It goes like this:

Once upon a time we were a united people and things were good, but then we were betrayed by a political elite pandering to alien forces who don’t accept our values. We need a strong leader to sweep this elite from power and drive out or suppress these alien forces.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I have to point out that the historic precedent for this story is that it was told during the Great Depression by fascists like Adolph Hitler. The Alien Undermining Story has its greatest power in times of confusion in which multiple stories clash and none seem to be able to pull people together well enough to move the country forward. People then look to a strong leader to unify us against the alleged perpetrators of our chaotic situation.

What Now?

Our political stories unite us with those who share them, but divide us from those who adopt divergent stories. When no story is capable of gaining majority support, there are only two paths open to us. One is persistent divisiveness that allows the rise of fascist forces and ultimately leads to greater chaos. The other is to find a new story capable of winning majority acceptance.

This new story might be a variation of one of the old stories that allows it to incorporate the persuasive elements of a competing story, or it might be something radically different from any of the older stories.

But to persist in clinging to one of the old stories without identifying why many people find it unpersuasive, or finding a way to adapt it so as to bring two stories together into a better story, is a recipe for disaster.

Is National Health Insurance a “Far Left” Proposal?

by Alan F. Zundel

(Originally posted September 15, 2017)

National health insurance was first instituted in Germany in 1883 by chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Who was Bismarck? An arch-conservative trying to win worker support away from the growing socialist movement, which he suppressed with the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878.

Far from being an idea nurtured solely by socialists or the “far left,” national health insurance has long been a proposal within the mainstream of modern politics.

In the United States the idea was first taken up by Teddy Roosevelt, who switched from the Republican to the Progressive Party in his Presidential campaign of 1912. (He lost in a three-way race to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.)

Opponents from business, the insurance industry, and medicine soon mobilized against the idea and tagged it first as foreign German idea (our enemy in World War I) and then after the Russian Revolution a communist one.

FDR & Truman

Yet President Franklin D. Roosevelt picked it up in the 1930s for his New Deal program to address the Great Depression. He had his Committee of Economic Security develop a secret report for a system of national health care, but he held back from proposing it until he passed the Social Security Act of 1935.

FDR then had the Social Security Board then do further work on the plan and presented it at a major conference in July 1938. He sent the plan to Congress in January 1939 but his attention was diverted to World War II. He revived the issue in his 1943 State of the Union address, calling for a “cradle to grave” social insurance system, and in 1944 campaigned for an economic bill of rights that included universal health care. FDR supported national health insurance again in his 1945 State of the Union address but unfortunately died that April.

Where Roosevelt was cautious, his successor Harry Truman was bold. Truman backed the Wager-Murray-Dingell bill for universal health care and took on the conservative opposition. After winning an unexpected election victory in 1948, he submitted a plan for national health insurance but it was stalled by the rise of anti-communist McCarthyism. The Democrats then turned to a step-by-step strategy.

Medicare & Medicaid

Bills to establish national health insurance for seniors were introduced in 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962, throughout the terms of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, but got stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee. The chair, Arkansas Democrat Wilbur Mills, was concerned that national health insurance would force southern hospitals to treat black patients and so refused to hold hearings on the bills.

Kennedy worked on Mills and was able to get hearings in 1963, but was assassinated that November. His successor Lyndon Johnson next took up the cause and after a landslide election in 1964 passed Medicare and Medicaid, landmark programs providing government health insurance to seniors, the poor and the disabled.

But this was not the end goal. After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the Presidential campaign of 1968, his brother Senator Ted Kennedy took up the unfinished task of universal health insurance during the Nixon Presidency.

Nixon’s Plan

Nixon, worried about a Presidential bid from Kennedy in 1972, developed his own plan for national health insurance, relying on mandating employers to offer health insurance and subsidized insurance for poor families. However, when he unveiled it early 1971 it proved to be too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, who stuck with Kennedy’s plan for single-payer health insurance.

During Nixon’s second term he again wanted to get in front of the issue and instructed his staff to consider all options, even single payer. They came up with the “Comprehensive Health Insurance Program,” which was similar to his previous plan but more extensive. It provided for an employer mandate, a comprehensive benefit package, and government subsidies for those without government or employer insurance.

(Nixon’s plan was essentially the template for Governor Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts in 2006 and President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010.)

Nixon even entered into secret negotiations with Kennedy and Wilbur Mills for a compromise plan, but with the Watergate issue heating up Kennedy and Mills decided to go forward with a bill of their own, a single-payer plan with cost-sharing by consumers and an intermediary role for employers. When the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office his successor Gerald Ford worked with Mills on a bill until Mills was caught up in a scandal himself.

Ford lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter, a conservative Democrat more concerned with controlling health care costs than extending coverage. When he repeatedly rebuffed Kennedy’s overtures to support single-payer, Kennedy challenged him for the 1980 Presidential nomination.

Clinton & Obama

Republican Ronald Reagan won that election and initiated the conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s, during which there was an ill-fated catastrophic coverage bill which passed but almost immediately repealed. Bill Clinton took up the gauntlet when he finally recaptured the Presidency for the Democrats in 1993. However Clinton rejected single-payer for a “managed competition” approach which spectacularly failed to pass Congress.

Senator Kennedy, frustrated with Clinton and working around him, managed to pass a successful bill in 1997 to extend health insurance to children just above the poverty line by funding it with a tax on tobacco. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was the biggest expansion of government health insurance since Medicare and Medicaid. Six years later Kennedy worked with the George W. Bush administration to extend prescription drug coverage to Medicare patients, although he bitterly opposed the final form of the resulting bill.

After gaining a commitment from Barack Obama to make universal health coverage a top priority of his administration, Kennedy endorsed him over Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Presidential nomination campaign. Kennedy continued to engage in the health care negotiations leading up to Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2010, although he died of brain cancer before it passed.

“Medicare for All”

Now it is Senator Bernie Sanders, a longtime proponent of single-payer, who has become the leading figure to bring single-payer health insurance to the United States. Sanders’ continued popularity after his Presidential run and widespread dissatisfaction with the complexity of the ACA have brightened the prospects for a “Medicare For All” bill, which has its opponents panicked.

Is single-payer national health insurance a far-left proposal from the fringe of politics, as they claim?  Only someone ignorant of American history could think so.

Oregon Non-Spoiler Electoral Opportunities

by Alan F. Zundel

(Originally posted August 16, 2017)

For independent and alternative party candidates who would challenge the policy agendas of the major parties, running for office is a good way to promote different ideas. But running can also raise the prospect of acting as a “spoiler” by increasing the chances that a “greater evil” major party candidate will defeat a “lessor evil” major party candidate. This prospect dampens the willingness of voters to vote for alternative candidates, and can inhibit the decision of potential candidates to run. As a result, the political debate is narrowed and the choices available to voters are reduced.

However, there are many electoral opportunities to run with no or a very low chance of acting as a spoiler. And I am not talking about low-level nonpartisan offices, but partisan offices in the U.S. Congress or the state legislature.

Some seats have an uncontested candidate, usually an incumbent, and so it would be impossible for another candidate to act as a spoiler by challenging them. Other seats are regularly won with very high margins and so gaining votes that would have gone to the leading candidate will not be enough to cause some other “greater evil” candidate to win.

For example, in the 2016 election for the Oregon House of Representatives, eleven of the sixty seats were uncontested. In the Oregon Senate, five of the sixteen seats up for election were uncontested. And in many more, the leading candidate won by over a two-to-one ratio over the second-place candidate.

Here are some of the seats to watch for the 2018 election, which judging by recent history may present good opportunities for non-major party candidates to run without being accused of being a spoiler.

U.S. Congressional Seats

In the 3rd Congressional District in the eastern Portland area, Democrat Earl Blumenauer won with 71.8% of the vote in 2016 and 72.3% in 2014, making this seat relatively safe for alternative candidates to run without the concern of being a spoiler.

In the 2nd U.S. Congressional District covering the eastern half of the state, Republican Greg Walden won with 71.7% of the vote in 2016 and 70.4% of the vote in 2014. However, his role in the effort to replace the Affordable Care Act may have given the Democrats an opportunity to make gains, so this may not be an ideal seat for alternative candidates trying to avoid acting as spoilers.

Oregon Senate Seats

In the Oregon state Senate, fifteen seats should be up for election in 2018. (Each of the thirty Senate seats are up for election every four years, half of them each election year.) Potential candidates should keep an eye on whether candidates for both major parties file for their districts.

In Oregon Senate District 7 in the northwest Eugene area, Democrat Chris Edwards was uncontested in 2014. However, Democrat James Manning replaced Edwards by appointment and will likely attract a Republican challenger in 2018.

Democrats Richard Devlin in District 19 (south of Portland) and Rod Monroe in District 24 (eastern Portland) were also uncontested in 2014. As incumbents they might again scare off Republican challengers; however, in 2010 their share of the votes were each below 55% when they were challenged.

Three Oregon Senate candidates won with high margins in 2014, all of them against minor parties challengers with no other major party candidate in the race, but only two of these seats will be up for election in 2018. In District 10 (south and west Salem), Republican Jackie Winters won with 87% of the vote and in District 16 (northwest of Portland), Democrat Betsy Johnson won with 70%. Against major party challengers in 2010, they received 68.3%, and 54.4% respectively. Winters’ seat would seem to be safe for challengers who wish to avoid being spoilers.

Oregon House Seats

Turning to the Oregon House of Representatives, in which all sixty seats are up for election every two years, the following seats were uncontested in 2016:

District 2 (Roseburg), Republican Dallas Heard. In 2014 Heard won about 63% to 31% against a Democratic challenger, nearly twice as many votes. (All the percentages below are rounded to the nearest whole number.)

District 4 (Grants Pass), Republican Duane Stark. In 2014 Stark won against a Democrat about 68.5% to 31%, over twice as many votes.

District 6 (Medford), Republican Sal Esquivel, who was also uncontested in 2014.

District 27 (Beaverton), Democrat Sheri Malstrom. In 2014 Democrat Tobias Read won against a Republican challenger with nearly 81% of the vote.

District 43 (Portland), Democrat Tawna Sanchez. In 2014 Democrat Frederick Lew ran uncontested.

District 45 (Portland), Democrat Barbara Smith Warner. Smith Warner was also uncontested in 2014.

District 46 (Portland), Democrat Alissa Keny-Guyer. She was also uncontested in 2014.

District 49 (Troutdale), Democrat Chris Gorsek. This seat was more competitive in 2014, with Gorsek winning about 60% to 39% against a Republican.

District 57 (north central Oregon), Republican Greg Smith. He was also uncontested in 2014.

District 58 (Cove), Republican Greg Barreto. In 2014 Barreto won with about 73% to his Democratic challenger’s 25%, nearly three times as many votes.

District 60 (Ontario), Republican Cliff Bentz. In 2014 Bentz won with over four times as many votes as his Democratic rival, about 82% to 19%.

All of the above seats, with the possible exception of District 49, would be unlikely to be affected by any spoiler dynamic. The following seats had candidates who won with high margins in 2016, and were either uncontested or also had decisive winners in 2014:

District 3 (Grants Pass), Republican Carl Wilson, about 73% to 27% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 64/26% against a Democrat.

District 7 (Roseburg), Republican Cedric Hayden, 64/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 78% of the vote against a Libertarian candidate.

District 8 (Eugene), Democrat Paul Holvey, 69/27% against a Republican. In 2014 he ran uncontested.

District 13 (Eugene), Democrat Nancy Nathanson, 66/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she won 69/30% against a Republican.

District 15 (Albany), Republican Andy Olson, 83/17% against a Progressive Party candidate. In 2014 he was uncontested.

District 16 (Corvallis), Democrat Dan Rayfield, 58/21% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 72/27% against a Republican.

District 17 (Scio), Republican Sherri Sprenger, 79/21% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 she won 74/26% against a Democrat.

District 18 (Silverton), Republican Vic Gilliam, 66/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 66/34% against a Democrat. In early 2017 Republic Rick Lewis replaced Gilliam by appointment, and so may face a more competitive race.

District 31 (Clatskanie), Democrat Brad Witt, 81/19% against a Libertarian. However, in 2014 he won only 54/40% against a Republican.

District 33 (Portland), Democrat Mitch Greenlick, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 82% of the vote against a Libertarian.

District 36 (Portland), Democrat Jennifer Williamson, 89/11% against a Libertarian. In 2014 she won 85% of the vote against a Libertarian.

District 38 (Lake Oswego), Democrat Ann Lininger, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she was uncontested.

District 39 (Oregon City), Republican Bill Kennemer, 65/32%. In 2014 he was uncontested.

District 41 (Milwaukie), Democrat Karin Power, 72/28% against a Republican. In 2014 Democrat Kathleen Taylor won 70/29% against a Republican.

District 42 (Portland), Democrat Rob Nosse, 89/6% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 he won with 91% against a Libertarian.

District 44 (Portland), Democrat Tina Kotech, 81/19% against a Pacific Green Party candidate. In 2014 she won 85/14% against a Republican.

District 47 (Portland), Democrat Diego Hernandez, 67/33% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Democrat Jessica Vega Pederson ran uncontested.

District 48 (Happy Valley), Democrat Jeff Reardon, 63/28% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 67/32% against a Republican.

District 53 (Sunriver), Republican Gene Whisnant, 68/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he was uncontested.

District 55 (Powell Butte), Republican Mike McLane, 76/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 72/22% against a Democrat.

District 56 (Klamath Falls), Republican E. Werner Reschke, 82/18% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Republican Gail Whitsett ran uncontested.

District 59 (The Dalles), Republican John Huffman, 71/29% against a Democrat. He ran uncontested in 2014.

Altogether over half of the Oregon House seats could be safe for independent and alternative party candidates to run in without concern of being a spoiler.

 

Potential candidates interested in running should keep an eye on who files for the spring 2018 primaries to run for office in their districts. The filing period runs from September 7, 2017 through March 6, 2018. Filings are listed on the website of the Oregon Secretary of State: https://secure.sos.state.or.us/orestar/CFSearchPage.do

 

NOTE: Uncontested Senate seats in 2016: Districts 2 (Baertschiger-R), 14 (Hass), 18 (Burdick-D), 23 (Dembrow-D), 28 (Linthicum-R).

High margin Senate seats in 2016: 1 (Kruse-R) 74/26%, 9 (Girod-R) 69/27, 21 (Taylor-D) 78/14, 22 (Frederick-D) 92/8, 29 (Hansell-R) 81/19, 30 (Ferrioli-R) 70/30.

Creating an Un-Party

by Alan F. Zundel

(Originally posted August 24, 2017)

“Happy un-birthday to you!” the Mad Hatter congratulated Alice. He explained that un-birthdays are better than birthdays because they give you 364 days to celebrate on each year instead of just one.

Nick Brana, a former staffer for Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign, is trying to persuade the Senator to help create a new political party to run with in 2020. For now Bernie seems to be sticking with a strategy of working inside the Democratic Party. His followers are conflicted.

This issue of which party is the best vehicle to carry forward a progressive agenda has been roiling the troops since Bernie lost the 2016 Democratic nomination. The Democratic Party? A new People’s Party? An existing party such as the Green Party or the Working Families Party? Which is most promising?

Why not an un-party?

But why is a choice between parties necessary? Why not create an un-party instead?

Think of the chief functions of a political party. It gives voters a common identity for their political orientation. It holds an organizational structure to mobilize people to support candidates in elections. And it offers a path to get candidates on the ballot.

All of these can be done without needing everyone to choose a single party or create a new one.

A 501(c)4 “social welfare organization” can engage in activities such as voter education and candidate scorecards, and an affiliated political action committee could organize voters to support particular candidates. This kind of hybrid organization could give members from any or no political party a common identity. It could offer an organizational structure to mobilize voters on behalf of the candidates most in line with their agenda, regardless of the party affiliation of the candidate. And its members could support good candidates in the different party primaries while helping non-affiliated candidates get on the ballot where desired by gathering signatures for them.

The one thing it cannot do, a least in a closed primary state such as Oregon, is get all of its members to vote together for the same candidate in a specific party’s nomination process. But the attempt to get everyone on board with joining the same party is based on a fruitless hope, driving people apart instead of pulling them together. Given the nature of our two-party electoral system and the difficulties of reforming the Democratic Party, people will take different paths on the party question for justifiable reasons.

How to get started

I propose accepting the reality that people will join different parties and create an un-party so those of us who are willing can work together.

The building blocks of an un-party are a common political orientation, an attractive name that reflects its orientation, a sound organizational structure, and trusted leadership. It is well worth taking the time to attend to these fundamentals so that the un-party can hold up under the inevitable internal and external pressures it will encounter. “Politics ain’t bean bags,” as some wise person once said.

Although at some point in an organization’s growth it will be necessary to raise money, it would be best to maintain a focus on organizing people power with somewhat less emphasis on fund raising. This is because it is harder to divert a committed membership than to divert a pot of money to purposes in conflict with an organization’s founding vision.

So rather than picking one party to engage with and putting all of your energy into that, why not join together and work to elect the best candidates we can regardless of their party? It is worth working to elect progressive Democratic candidates, but it is also worth supporting alternative candidates when a nominated Democrat does not live up to our principles.

Having 364 days to celebrate is better than having just one. And having multiple pathways for moving forward together is better than having just one.

If you are interested in this concept, let’s talk.

What Is Socialism?

 

by Alan F. Zundel

(Originally posted August 8, 2017)

Socialism is no longer a dirty word in the U.S.

Today the face of socialism is more likely to be Bernie Sanders than Nikita Khrushchev. Younger voters were born after the end of the Cold War, for them a part of history rather than memory. Older voters are more concerned about the threats posed by resurgent capitalism than by the threat of universal health care.

So what is socialism? There has been a lot of confusion, discussion and debate over this question lately. Which should not be surprising, since socialists themselves have been debating this same question for nearly two hundred years.

Words, especially words used in political conflicts, can be ambiguous—they can have multiple meanings and nuances in different contexts. Socialism has never meant exactly the same thing to everyone.

What is capitalism?

What is generally agreed is that “socialism” is different than “capitalism” and in opposition to it. But that doesn’t take us too far, not least because the definition of capitalism is not always clear either.

We can get some insight by tracing the history of these words. The word “capitalism” came into use in the 1800s as writers began to reflect on the remarkable changes happening in Western European societies. Feudal socio-economic relations, which had lasted for hundreds of years, were disappearing and something new was being born. “Capitalism” was coined to describe this new something.

There was general agreement on the main features of capitalism. Market transactions facilitated by money were much more widespread, whereas under feudalism most goods had transferred hands based on traditional relations between people. New conceptions of private property rights governed the use of lands. Tenant farmers and independent craftsmen became wage earners.

And, mostly importantly, those who owned “capital”—the material resources used in production, or the money to invest in these—controlled production and sought opportunities to make profits.

Most of these writers were trying to understand the source of the contemporary labor problem.  Under capitalism workers were often in open conflict with the owners and managers they worked for, fighting for better pay and working conditions, and there was a large class of impoverished people who were now dependent on wages but couldn’t find jobs.

Early socialism

The writers wanted to apply new scientific methods of studying society to get at the source of the problems and re-design economic relations so as to replace social conflict with social harmony and cooperation. Because of this emphasis, they called themselves “socialists.” Many of them had religious orientations.

Socialists had different ideas about what exactly needed to be fixed within capitalism, although they agreed that something fundamental was broken. Those who regarded private property as a chief part of the problem and advocated common ownership were known as “communists.” Karl Marx was one of the latter, but he was neither the first nor, at least during his lifetime (1818-1883), the most influential of the socialists.

It was when the intellectual socialists began to combine forces with working people’s movements that “socialism” was born. Socialism in this usage wasn’t an economic system, it was a social movement aimed at fundamental social change on behalf of working people. By the end of the 19th century socialist political parties had formed and Marx’s writings became the most widely used source for their theoretical orientation. But there was still debate over ultimate aims and tactics.

Around the turn of the century capitalist enterprises were growing into large corporations controlling all phases of production and distribution, from resource extraction to sales, and trusts held stock in multiple businesses to coordinate their operations. Many socialists saw the trajectory leading toward one big business controlling the entire economy. At that point, the state could simply step in and replace private ownership with state ownership. This became the unifying goal of the movement, although there were still dissenters.

Russia and the Soviet Union

The main split between socialists came over the question of evolution or revolution, that is, should the state takeover of the economy be achieved gradually by democratic processes or all at once by violent revolution? The former seemed the most realistic path until the 1917 communist takeover of the Russian government by Vladimir Lenin and his allies. After that the debate between democratic socialists and partisans of revolution, now simply called “communists,” heightened.

In the mid-20th century growing awareness of the totalitarian character of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union led many socialists to question the model of state ownership with centralized control of economic transactions. Some European socialists began to advocate mixed economic forms with both state and privately owned companies, market relations, and extensive social welfare protections such as national health insurance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the once unifying socialist goal of state ownership collapsed with it.

What is socialism today?

Which brings us back to now. Is socialism simply a critical view of capitalism? A social movement on behalf of working people? A system of centralized economic control and public ownership of the means of production? A system of mixed ownership and extensive social welfare programs?

The word has had shifting meanings over the years, changing as the shape of capitalism changed and new understandings developed. The capitalism of today is not the capitalism of the 19th or the 20th centuries; it continues to evolve and change even as its characteristic features persist. Socialism needs to evolve along with it in order to address the problems of the capitalism of today.

In sum, socialists need to define socialism in such a way that the word has meaning for people living under current economic conditions. The definition of socialism is not so much a linguistic problem—it is a political problem.