If Bernie becomes the nominee, I want him to win. The country will need him to win to save democracy from Trumpism.
But here’s the problem: we liberals are great at substance, and terrible at messaging.
Great at substance because we believe in science. Terrible at messaging because we’re stuck in our heads. Effective messaging is emotional, not rational.
To wit: arguing about the meaning of the word “socialism.” This is, I’m sorry, idiotic messaging. But as Bernie rises, that’s what we’re doing. If Bernie becomes the nominee, maybe he’ll win anyway, and for all our sakes, I sure hope he does. But why climb a mountain when there’s a perfectly good tunnel right through it?
What Bernie is campaigning on isn’t even socialism: it’s social democracy, aka FDR-style progressivism. FDR was one of the most popular and successful presidents in history — partly because he wasn’t dumb enough to call himself a socialist when he wasn’t one.
Bernie points to Nordic countries like Denmark and Finland as examples of what he’s advocating. Those are great examples of happy, successful places that we could learn some things from — but they’re not socialist. They’re social democracies: mixed free market economies with socialist components — like every other successful economy in the world, whether it skews left or right.
“Socialism” has a technical meaning: “collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods” (Merriam-Webster). But most Americans who say they like socialism don’t think that’s what they’re talking about — they think they’re talking about things like everyone having access to health care, education, and a living wage. Again: you get those things through social democracy, aka progressivism. Full-on socialism adds the enormous inefficiency of centralized control of the economy, plus the reduction in freedom that comes along. These things are not popular, and they are not successful.
Why does it matter? What if we’ve just changed the meaning of the word, so now “socialism” does mean the same as “social democracy” — or “democratic socialism,” as Bernie calls it (although actual Democratic Socialists disagree with him)?
For the same reason, you don’t call a bakery that sells fresh bread the Day-Old Bread Company. Why spend all your time having to convince people “I don’t really mean it, the bread is actually fresh!”? Especially when the bakery across the street is going to be warning everyone to stay away from your moldy old bread and buy their fresh-baked instead?
That is what Trump and the GOP are waiting to do to Bernie if he’s the nominee, but at a going-nuclear scale. And they’re good at it. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was one of the most popular public figures in the country, with about 65 percent approval. So the GOP, knowing she’d probably run for president, hit her with four years’ worth of the bogus Benghazi scandal, knocking her approval down by about 25 points — and then dropped the whole thing as soon as Trump won. (Kevin McCarthy even — oops — bragged about how effective it had been.)
That’s what’s waiting for Bernie if he’s the nominee — but this time it will be as if Hillary ran on the slogan, “The Benghazi candidate,” because Bernie is essentially saying “I’m the socialist candidate.”
Except he’s a socialist-but-not-really, and that’s the argument we’ll have to have. Cool, because liberals like nothing better than to argue over the meaning of words. Why waste your time on that boring old persuasion stuff that you have to do to win elections? I mean, selling your ideas seems kind of unseemly, doesn’t it?
It’s possible to talk about what Bernie’s advocating for without making it sound like bitter medicine you’re trying get the whole country to take. Trump, who’s all branding and no substance, knows how. When he imposes command economy-style tariffs and then transfers billions of dollars to the people hurt by them, does he call that socialism? No, he calls it “forcing China to play fair,” and “helping our patriotic farmers.”
Bernie doesn’t need to lie, but he also doesn’t need to talk like he still gets messaging tips from old SDS mimeographs. He doesn’t need to use words that sound scary and/or foreign to most Americans, like “political revolution,” or “working class.” Few working Americans think of themselves as “working class.” They think of themselves as people with jobs, and they identify themselves in terms of what they do, and their family, and their culture.
A very big part of the reason the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-litter campaign has been so successful is because it doesn’t talk about litter. The ad agency behind it realized that Texans don’t say “litter” — it sounds like something a fancy-pants Easterner would say. Texans say “mess.”
If a group of ordinary people pitch in to help a neighbor’s child who needs an operation, we could call that “the working class” doing “socialism.” Or how about we don’t? How about, instead, “neighbors helping neighbors?”
And how about we don’t waste precious air time defending Castro?
Nah, why pander. Let’s argue some more about what “socialism” means. Maybe it’ll even work!
And after all, it’s not like there’s much at stake, right?